Tassanee Vejpongsa / Associated Press
BANGKOK — A Saudi woman who fled alleged abuse by her family left Bangkok on Friday night to fly to Canada to take up an offer of asylum, Thailand’s immigration police chief said.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, took a flight to Seoul, South Korea, with a final destination of Toronto, said Police Chief Surachate Hakparn.
Several countries, including Canada and Australia, had been in talks with the U.N.’s refugee agency to accept Alqunun, he said earlier in the day.
Canada’s ambassador had seen her off at the airport, Surachate said, adding that she looked happy and healthy.
“She chose Canada. It’s her personal decision,” he said.
She thanked everyone for helping her, he said, and added that the first thing she would do upon arrival in Canada would be to start learning the language. She already speaks more than passable English in addition to Arabic.
A spokesman for Canada’s foreign minister did not immediately confirm she was headed to Canada.
Alqunun’s case has highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases have gone unreported.
Alqunun was stopped Jan. 5 at a Bangkok airport by immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport.
She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and launched a social media campaign that drew global attention. It got enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials, who granted her refugee status Wednesday.
If Canada gives asylum to Alqunun, it could further upset Saudi-Canada relations. In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada’s Foreign Ministry tweeted support for the arrests of women’s right activists. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave.
Alqunun had previously said on Twitter that she wished to seek refuge in Australia.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met Thursday with senior Thai officials in Bangkok. She later said Australia was assessing Alqunun’s resettlement request.
Payne said she also raised Australia’s concerns with Thai officials about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured.
He was arrested while vacationing in Thailand in November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalizing a police station — a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition.
Al-Araibi’s case is being considered by Thailand’s justice system, she said.
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed.