Saudi teen who fled family welcomed in Canada, diplomatic row between the nations likely to escalate

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family last week saying she feared for her life arrived in Toronto on Saturday following her Twitter appeal to Canada to grant her asylum.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was welcomed by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland as a “brave new Canadian”, reported Reuters. Al-Qunun was wearing a grey hoodie with the word “Canada” written across it in red, and a blue cap sporting the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,

A 20-year-old friend of al-Qunun told The Guardian last Monday that the threats she faced were real. “She’s ex-Muslim and has a very strict family,” the unidentified friend was quoted as saying. “They are using violence with her and she faced sexual harassment. She received a threat from her cousin – he said he wants to see her blood, he wants to kill her.”

Critics of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to grant asylum to al-Qunun indicated that ties between Saudi Arabia and Canada could deteriorate. The ties had become strained last year when Ottawa flagged human rights abuses in the kingdom. In August, when Canada sought the release of jailed activists especially women, Riyadh responded by expelling the Canadian Ambassador and recalling its envoy to Ottawa. Saudi also transferred its citizens being treated in Canadian hospitals outside the country and withdrew students from scholarship programmes in Canadian universities, reported CNN.

Al-Qunun who arrived in Bangkok last week intending to seek asylum in Australia, barricaded herself in a hotel room in Suvarnabhumi airport’s transit area after she was initially denied entry into Thailand. She posted messages on Twitter saying she had escaped Kuwait, where her she had been on a visit with her family, and did not want to return to them in Saudi Arabia. Her appeal was picked up by activists who organised a #SaveRahaf campaign within hours. Al-Qunun’s case led to Canada’s offer of asylum.

Al-Qunun took up Canada’s offer as Australia was still taking time to consider her request.