Rahaf Mohammed al Qunun was already en route to Toronto late on Friday when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the surprise announcement after officials had previously given heavy hints she was bound for Australia.

Asylum Seeker Rahaf Mohammed al Qunun, 18, smiles as she is introduced to the media at Toronto Pearson International Airport, alongside Canadian minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, right, on January 12, 2019 in Toronto, Canada.
Asylum Seeker Rahaf Mohammed al Qunun, 18, smiles as she is introduced to the media at Toronto Pearson International Airport, alongside Canadian minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, right, on January 12, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (AFP)

A young Saudi woman who caused a sensation by defying her family and seeking asylum abroad was welcomed with open arms in Toronto Saturday at the end of an exhausting international odyssey.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland greeted Rahaf Mohammed al Qunun, 18, after she landed in Toronto, wearing a blue ball cap and a grey hoodie emblazoned in red with the word "CANADA."

Smiling broadly, she posed for photographers with Freeland at her side, but made no statement.

"She had a pretty long journey and is exhausted and prefers not to take questions for the moment," Freeland said.

Al Qunun who said she was abused by her family and feared for her life if deported back home left Thailand on Friday night for Canada, which has granted her asylum, officials said.

The fast-moving developments capped an eventful week for Rahaf Mohammed al Qunun. She fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and grabbed global attention by mounting a social media campaign for asylum.

Her case 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 forcibly returned home.

Human rights activists say many similar cases go unreported.

Qunun was flying to Toronto via Seoul, South Korea, according to Thai immigration Police Chief Surachate Hakparn. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed his country had granted her asylum.

"That is something that we are pleased to do because Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights and to stand up for women's rights around the world, and I can confirm that we have accepted the UN's request," Trudeau said.

Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the UN's refugee agency to accept Qunun, Surachate said earlier in the day.

"She chose Canada. It's her personal decision," he said.

Canada's ambassador had seen her off at the airport, Surachate said, adding that she looked happy and healthy.

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 some English, in addition to Arabic.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed Canada's decision.

"The quick actions over the past week of the government of Thailand in providing temporary refuge and facilitating refugee status determination by UNHCR, and of the government of Canada in offering emergency resettlement to Ms al Qunun and arranging her travel were key to the successful resolution of this case," the agency said in a statement.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, cited Qunun's "courage and perseverance."

"This is so much a victory for everyone who cares about respecting and promoting women's rights, valuing the independence of youth to forge their own way, and demanding governments operate in the light and not darkness," he said in a statement.

Qunun was stopped on 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 and took her plight onto social media. It got enough public and diplomatic support that Thai officials admitted her temporarily under the protection of UN officials, who granted her refugee status on Wednesday.

Qunun's father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him. Surachate said the father – whose name has not been released – denied physically abusing Qunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight. He said Qunun's father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision.

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

Canada's decision to grant her asylum could further upset the country's relations with Saudi Arabia.

In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada's ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada's Foreign Ministry tweeted support for women's rights activists who had been arrested. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave.

No country, including the US, spoke out publicly in support of Canada in that spat with the Saudis.

On Friday, Trudeau avoided answering a question about what the case would mean for relations with the kingdom, but he said Canada will always unequivocally stand up for human rights and women's rights around the world.

Qunun had previously said on Twitter that she wanted to seek refuge in Australia.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met on Thursday with senior Thai officials in Bangkok. She later said Australia was assessing Qunun's resettlement request.

Source: Reuters