Saudi teen Rahaf arrives in Canada

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (R) has welcomed Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (R) has welcomed Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun.

Tired but smiling, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who said she feared death if deported back home has arrived in Canada, which swept in to offered her asylum after Australia delayed its decision.

"This is Rahaf Alqunun, a very brave new Canadian," Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said arm-in-arm with the Saudi teenager in Toronto's airport.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun smiled broadly as she exited an airport arrival door sporting a Canada zipper hoodie and a UN High Commissioner for Refugees hat, capping a dramatic week that saw her flee her family while visiting Kuwait and before flying to Bangkok.

From there, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and tweeted about her situation.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would accept Alqunun as a refugee.

Her situation has highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home.

Freeland said Alqunun preferred not to take questions Saturday.

"She is obviously very tired after a long journey and she preferred to go and get settled," Freeland said.

"But it was Rahaf's choice to come out and say hello to Canadians. She wanted Canadians to see that she's here, that she's well and that she's very happy to be in her new home."

After arriving she was off to get winter clothes, said Mario Calla, executive director of an agency that helping her settle in temporary housing and applying for a health card.

"She did comment to me about the cold," Freeland said.

"It does get warmer," Freeland said she told her.

Alqunun flew to Toronto via Seoul, South Korea, according to Thai immigration Police Chief Surachate Hakparn.

Alqunun tweeted two pictures from her plane seat - one with what appears to be a glass of wine and her passport and another holding her passport while on the plane with the hashtag "I did it" and the emojis showing plane, hearts and wine glass.

Canada's decision to grant her asylum could further upset the country's relations with Saudi Arabia, which have been strained since Canada's Foreign Ministry tweeted support for women's right activists who had been arrested.

There was no immediate Saudi government reaction, nor any mention of her arrival in state media.

But a Saudi government-sanctioned body, the National Society for Human Rights, said it deplores the methods used by some foreign officials and organisations to "incite" some young Saudi females to disobey their families and leave the country.

The group's director, Muftal al-Qahtani, said women facing abuse in the kingdom can turn to Saudi authorities and local organisations for assistance, and said encouraging them to leave leaves some vulnerable to abuse and harms families.

Earlier, the Australian government welcomed the news that Ms Alqunun was granted asylum in Canada, saying her safety was its primary concern.

The UNHCR reportedly withdrew its referral for Alqunon to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum.

"When referring cases with specific vulnerabilities who need immediate resettlement, we attach great importance to the speed at which countries consider and process cases," a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok said in an email.

"Why did Rahaf go to Canada instead of her preferred choice of Australia where she had friends?" Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a tweet.

"Because she needed safety from her Saudi pursuers fast, and Canada expedited her case while Australia (under Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton) slow-walked it."

Alqunun was stopped January 5 at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport by immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport.

She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room where her social media campaign got enough support that Thai officials admitted her temporarily under the protection of UN officials, who granted her refugee status on Wednesday.

Surachate said her father - whose name has not been released - denied physically abusing Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight.

He said Alqunun's father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision.

"He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes," Surachate said.

Alqunun's father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him.

Australian Associated Press