As It Happens

Canada helped pressure Thailand to protect Saudi woman, says Human Rights Watch

Canada played a role in convincing the Thai government not to send an asylum-seeking woman back to Saudi Arabia against her wishes, says Human Rights Watch.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, has left the Bangkok airport and is in talks with the UNHCR

In this Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, image made from video released by Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is shown in a hotel room at an international airport in Bangkok, Thailand. (Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch via AP)

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Canada played a role in convincing the Thai government not to send an asylum-seeking woman back to Saudi Arabia against her wishes, says Human Rights Watch.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, is now in talks with the United Nations refugee agency after spending the weekend barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel over fears the Thai government would send her home, where she says she would face violence from her family. 

She told reporters she fled Kuwait while her family was visiting the Gulf country and had planned to travel from Thailand to Australia to seek asylum, but was detained on a stopover in Bangkok. 

Stefano Maron, spokesperson for Global Affairs, said Canada is "very concerned by and watching closely the situation of Ms. Rahaf al-Qunun.

"We are in close contact with partners about her situation," Maron said in an email. "Canada will always stand up for human rights, very much including women's rights."

Phil Robertson, the Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director who has been in contact with Qunun, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about this unfolding situation. Here is part of their conversation. 

What was your last contact with this Saudi woman in Thailand?

It was probably mid-morning. We were working with her, actually advising her to barricade herself in her room to prevent her from being sent back to Kuwait.

What was she fleeing? What do you understand about what was going with her in Saudi Arabia?

She was fleeing psychological and physical abuse by her male relatives, in particular her father and her brother.

She had cut her hair and then been confined to her room for almost six months. She very clearly stated that she was unhappy with Islam. She was unhappy having to wear the hijab and being forced to pray. She was very unhappy being told that she couldn't study the things she wanted to study or she wouldn't be able to work in the way she want to work.

She was having her life interfered in every possible way by conservative men who were telling her that she could do this and couldn't do that, and when she tried to defy them and showed any independence, you know, she suffered abuse.

Qunun, centre, speaks with Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn, right and an unidentified UNHCR officer at a transit hotel inside the Suvarnabhumi international airport. (Thailand Immigration Bureau/EFE/EPA)

What has she said about what she believes will happen if she is returned to Saudi Arabia?

She was remarkably consistent in talking to us and talking to others in saying that she thought she would be killed if she was sent back to Saudi Arabia.

Her father is a senior government official in a provincial administration. This is someone, I think, who would be able to treat his family any way he wants and would basically benefit from impunity because of his position, his stature, his influence.

What we have found in Saudi Arabia is a complete failure by Saudi Arabia to effectively investigate and prosecute honour-related violence, i.e. violence against women and girls when they do something that the men believe brings the family's honour into disrepute.

Her father has apparently traveled to Bangkok to try and retrieve her. What do you know about that?

We are very concerned about that. And I raised that issue with the head of the UN refugee agency's office today and said, you know, I think it's very important that she be protected from this man.

She is 18 years old, she's considered adult by international law and, you know, she should not be forced to see him if she doesn't want to.

Are you confident that she will not have to meet with him or to have him take her back if she doesn't want that?

We're working to put in place mechanisms that we'll be able to respond if it looks like that becomes a threat.

She has been taken out of the airport. She has been put into a confidential place, a place that is not known to people outside of UNHCR.

You tweeted that the Canadian embassy in Bangkok may have been involved in some way and we know that Rahaf has appealed to countries including Canada to accept her as an asylum seeker. What has Canada done?

The ambassador Donna Pottie and her team were very, very active really from the first day on Sunday.

They were active in reaching out and pressuring the Thai government officials, trying to find out more information about what was happening to her, what were the plans, explaining to people what would happen if she was sent back. 

They really worked very hard to try to work all the angles to try to persuade the Thai government not to send her back and also to persuade other members of the diplomatic community to do more.

That kind of catalyst is very welcome. It was a pleasure working with them.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.