BANGKOK, Thailand — The 18-year-old Saudi asylum seeker who fled her family and harnessed the power of Twitter to stave off deportation from Thailand was due to fly to Canada late Friday, in a surprise twist after officials gave heavy hints she was bound for Australia.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s attempt to flee the ultra-conservative kingdom has been embraced by rights groups as a beacon of defiance against repression.
Thai authorities initially threatened to deport her after she arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait last weekend.
But armed with a smartphone and a hastily opened Twitter account, she forced a U-turn from Thai immigration police who handed her into the care of the UN’s refugee agency as the #SaveRahaf hashtag bounced across the world.
Qunun alleges abuse by her family — who deny the allegations — and rights groups also said she had renounced Islam, risking prosecution in Saudi Arabia.
She said she was aiming for Australia where officials had said they would give serious consideration to her claim for asylum, which was endorsed as legitimate by the UNHCR on Thursday.
But late Friday Thailand’s immigration police chief said she was bound for Canada.
“She will fly at 11:15 pm tonight (1615 GMT),” Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told AFP.
On Friday afternoon she posted a final cryptic tweet on her profile saying “I have some good news and some bad news” — shortly after her account was deactivated in response to death threats she had faced, her friends said.
“Rahaf received death threats and for this reason she closed her Twitter account, please save Rahaf life,” tweeted supporter @nourahfa313, who has flanked Rahaf’s social media campaign with her own updates on Twitter.
“I understand that there have been death threats against her but I don’t know the details,” said Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch, adding even threats from online trolls need to be taken seriously.
Rahaf’s swift use of Twitter saw her amass more than 100,000 followers within a week, highlighting her plight and allowing her to avoid the fate of countless other refugees who are quietly sent back home or languish in Bangkok detention centers.
She has refused to see her father who traveled to Thailand and expressed opposition to her resettlement.
Although her asylum case has moved at lightning speed the final maneuvers that led to her flight to Canada remain a mystery.
Australia had dropped strong hints it would resettle her after the UN urged the country to accept her.
On Thursday its foreign minister said Canberra was still assessing the request.
Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate had earlier told reporters Friday that “two or three” countries were ready to offer her asylum.
The Southeast Asian country is not a signatory to a convention on refugees and asylum seekers must be referred to a third country.