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#SaveRahaf: After a Twitter Storm Saudi Refugee Resettled in Canada

Arooj Sultan, BA Economics & Politics

Rahaf Mohammed, the 18-year-old Saudi refugee who fled from her family, is now safely residing in Canada. The teenager made headlines earlier this month when, citing family violence, she fled to Thailand and barricaded herself in a hotel room whilst sending out appeals for help on twitter.

Ms Mohammed, who has now dropped her family surname, Al-Qunun, alleged that her family had physically and psychologically abused her. She stated that she was being beaten by her family, and on one occasion locked in her bedroom for six months after she cut her hair short. She was on a trip with her family in Kuwait when she fled and flew out to Bangkok, from where she intended to take a connecting flight to Australia, in order to claim asylum there. However, upon reaching Thailand her passport was seized by a Saudi diplomat, and she was told by Thai immigration officers that she would be sent back to Kuwait. Ms Mohammed then barricaded herself in a hotel room at Bangkok airport and started tweeting out calls for help. She asserted that she would be killed if forced to return to her family, adding that she had also renounced Islam — a crime that is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Her pleas for help gained traction on Twitter after the Human Rights Watch, numerous activists, and journalists got involved, spawning the viral hashtag #SaveRahaf.

“She stated that she was being beaten by her family, and on one occasion locked in her bedroom for six months after she cut her hair short.”

As the hashtag went viral and Ms Mohammed’s Twitter following grew, an increasing amount of international publicity and support came with it. Thai authorities, in a rare deviation from their usual policy regarding refugees, finally allowed Ms Mohammed to be released into the care of the UN Refugee agency: the UNCHR. Thailand has a track record of generally refusing to recognise and take in refugees and asylum seekers, and also of often returning them to the countries where their lives are endangered. Though, following this saga, Thailand’s new immigration chief has said that refugees will no longer be returned “involuntarily”. Rahaf Mohammed was subsequently granted asylum by the Canadian government, after being placed under the protection of the UNHCR.

Ms Mohammed was then promptly relocated to Toronto and personally greeted by the Canadian Foreign Affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, who welcomed her and highlighted that this was part of Canada’s broader policy of supporting women both in Canada and around the world. Ms Freeland and her ministry drew the ire of the Saudi government last August by calling for the release of several women’s rights activists who are currently in jail. Although, the Saudi government has yet to officially comment on the Rahaf Mohammed case, the head of the Saudi-government funded National Society for Human Rights said he was “surprised by some countries’ incitement of some Saudi female delinquents to rebel against the values of their families”.

The Canadian government has come under criticism with regard to the Rahaf Mohammed case, as some columnists and online commentators are contrasting Canada’s treatment of Rahaf against its policy of blocking prospective refugees coming through the United States from other countries. Ms Mohammed has since given a media interview stating that her journey was “worth the risk” because Saudi women are “treated like objects”, and that she is safe, happy and looking forward to making her own decisions with regard to her future and education.

Image Credits: Creative Commons

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