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Saudi teenager Rahaf al-Qunun lands in Canada after offer of asylum

Teenager's plight gained worldwide attention in the past week as she shared her fears for her life on social media should she be sent home
Qunun on her arrival in Toronto after she flew from Thailand after requesting asylum to escape her family (AFP)

Teenage Saudi asylum-seeker Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun landed in Canada on Saturday to an official welcome after fleeing her home country last week.

Upon her arrival at the Toronto airport, Qunun, wearing a Canada hoodie and a UN High Commission for Refugees cap, posed for photographs with Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, but did not make a statement.

Qunun gained international attention earlier this month when she fled her home country to Thailand, saying she feared for her life should she be forcibly returned to her family.

While Australia had initially said it was looking at Qunun’s case to consider granting her asylum, Canada stepped in and offered immediate resettlement after Amnesty International's Australia director Elaine Pearson said the Australian government was "too slow" and "failed to recognise the urgency of Rahaf's situation".

The 18-year-old, who was en route to Australia, was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport last Saturday, and her travel document forcibly taken from her.

After being denied entry by Thai immigration officials, Qunun then barricaded herself inside a hotel room, posting live updates on social media.

"They will kill me," she said. "My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things."

'Overriding values of humanity have prevailed'

The UN granted Qunun refugee status earlier this week, shortly after Thailand said it would not deport her amid global pressure from human rights groups and other supporters.

"Ms al-Qunun’s plight has captured the world’s attention over the past few days, providing a glimpse into the precarious situation of millions of refugees worldwide." UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi said in a statement on Friday.

"Refugee protection today is often under threat and cannot always be assured, but in this instance international refugee law and overriding values of humanity have prevailed."

Qunun's case has drawn international scrutiny to the strict rules many Saudi women face and comes at a time when the Gulf country is under increased scrutiny following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Strict guardianship rules in the kingdom require women to have permission from a male relative for a range of things, including the ability to work, travel or marry.

Last year, Freeland, who welcomed Qunun in Toronto, had called for the Saudi authorities to immediately release detained Saudi women's rights activists.

The tweet set off a diplomatic firestorm between Ottawa and Riyadh, which accused the Canadian government of interfering in the Gulf kingdom's internal affairs.

Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador in the country and called on Canada to apologise publicly. Despite the frosty relationship, however, Trudeau has so far resisted calls to suspend a multi-billion-dollar deal to send Canadian-made weapons to Saudi Arabia.