High profile asylum seeker Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was, on Friday granted refugee status in Canada, ending a tumultuous week which started with her barricading herself in a Thai hotel room and sharing her plight to the world via social media. Al-Qunun, who was trying to travel onwards to Australia, was refused entry to Thailand despite claiming she would be killed if she were sent back to her strict and abusive family. The subsequent international outcry caused an about-turn.
Saudi Arabia denied requesting al-Qunun’s extradition, although they have strict laws controlling the rights of females, including a requirement that females must have permission from a male guardian to travel. Human Rights Watch stated that al-Qunun faced charges of “parental disobedience” and “harming Saudi Arabia’s reputation” if she was returned, charges which potentially carry the death penalty.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were quick to intervene, asking both Canada and Australia to consider al-Qunun’s case, while also advocating her plight with the Thai government. Fillipo Grandi, of the UNHCR said in a statement, “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.” He went on to praise Canada for taking in al-Qunun, as well as Thailand for granting her temporary refuge. In confirming the UN’s request, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told media, “Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world.”
After initially refusing her request, it is commendable that Thailand chose to grant al-Qunun temporary refuge while she came to a more permanent arrangement. Thailand is not signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, so had no requirement under its own legal frameworks to grant her entry. Disregarding debate as to whether Thailand should be signatory to this convention, it is heartening to see common sense and empathy applied in this instance.
This saga will have done little to help diplomatic relations between Thailand and Saudi Arabia, which have been severely strained since the 1989 “Blue Diamond Affair,” which began with the theft of a large amount of valuable jewels owned by Saudi royalty by a Thai employee, including a 50 carat blue diamond. While the Thai government were quick to seize the jewels once the employee returned to Thailand, upon sending them back to Saudi Arabia, the blue diamond was missing, and around half of the jewels were alleged to have been replaced with fakes. Subsequent rumours that Thai government officials and police had taken the jewels for themselves left diplomatic relations in tatters. A Saudi businessman who flew to Thailand to investigate the theft disappeared, and three Saudi embassy officials were shot dead, signalling a death-knell for relations between the two countries. Sanctions and hurdles remain in place, making travel between the two countries difficult, with Saudis prohibited by their government from travelling as tourists to Thailand.
Thailand’s eventual granting of safe passage to al-Qunun deserves recognition and respect, particularly in light of historically strained ties with Saudi Arabia, which will surely worsen as a result. While her final destination was Canada, she would not have made it there without assistance from the Thai government. It is encouraging that common sense and the safety of al-Qunun have prevailed above all else. To have sent her home would have been a travesty of human rights, a principle which should sit atop the agenda for all governments. Thailand and Canada risking diplomatic ties to ensure these rights is a victory for natural justice the world over.