Saudi teen Alqunun leaves Thailand for Canada to seek asylum

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport alongside Canadian minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland on Sunday. Alqunun fled her family saying she feared for her life and was granted asylum by Canada

But late Friday Thailand's immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn said a smiling and cheerful Rahaf was bound for Toronto and had left on a flight after 11pm (1600 GMT).

"Canada has granted her asylum", Surachate told Reuters. "She'll leave tonight at 11:15 p.m".

Qunun was initially denied entry to Thailand when she arrived at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport on Saturday, intending to fly from there to Australia to seek asylum.

She meant to fly on to Australia, but barricaded herself in a hotel room in Bangkok's main airport on Sunday after Thai immigration officials attempted to deport her back to the Middle East.

The developments come after the teenager, who will be flying from Bangkok to Seoul before taking a connecting flight to Canada, was given refugee status by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees on Wednesday.

"The [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] has made a request of Canada that we accept Ms.al-Qunun as a refugee and we have accepted the UN's request that we grant her asylum", he told reporters.

Qunun alleges abuse by her family - who deny the allegations - and rights groups also said she had renounced Islam, risking prosecution in Saudi Arabia.

It highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families were caught trying to seek asylum overseas in recent years and returned home.

However, Ms Qunun sent a series of tweets pleading for help from her airport hotel room, and her case was picked up by Human Rights Watch and journalists.

She is now en route to Canada, according to the Thai immigration chief.

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The teenager had written on her Twitter account, which now appears to have been taken down, that she wished to seek refuge in Australia.

Ms Alqunun's father, believed to be a regional official in the Kingdom, arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday but his daughter refused to meet with him. "Australia too said it might offer sanctuary". She said had been confined inside a hotel room at the airport, under the guard of men she said were from the Saudi embassy and Kuwait airlines.

Robertson praised the swift action of Donica Pottie, Canada's ambassador to Thailand, for her early involvement in the case and helping push the Thai government to allow the UNHCR to gain access to Alqunun, which is not something that usually happens in such cases in Thailand. "Canada will always stand up for human rights, very much including women's rights".

Her story has also put Saudi Arabia's guardianship laws, which restrict many aspects of women's lives, back under worldwide scrutiny.

Canadian officials were reluctant to comment further until she landed safely in Canada.

Regardless of the uncertainty of her future, Alqunun tweeted that she was "happy" with the decision from the United Nations.

Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, is escorted by the Thai immigration officer and UNHCR officials after gaining protection from the agency.

A Twitter user known as Nourah, whom Qunun has referred to as a friend, tweeted that Qunun "received death threats and for this reason she closed her Twitter account".

Saudi Arabia's wider human rights record has come under intense scrutiny since the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in October.

Ms. Payne held talks with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong, who is also justice minister, and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.

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