Human Rights Watch Australia has criticised the government’s handling of a Saudi teenager’s bid for asylum, after the 18-year-old was granted safe haven in Canada.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun fled from Kuwait to Thailand, saying she had been abused by her family and feared for her life if deported back home.
The Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said while it was “fantastic news Rahaf is headed to safety in Canada”, Australian officials should have acted with more urgency to resolve her case.
“The Canadian government seemed to appreciate the urgency of this case, while Australian officials did not – for whatever reason, Australia was moving too slowly in processing UNHCR’s request,” Pearson said.
“[Peter] Dutton’s comments that the case will be considered ‘in the usual way’ was probably not very comforting for UNHCR, knowing that it can take many months for individuals to be resettled. Her security situation in Thailand was precarious.”
Pearson said Qunun had made it to safety through her own courage and perseverance.
“She has become of a symbol of oppressed young women in Saudi Arabia. Even in Canada, she’ll need to be conscious of her security, but this is a real victory for women’s rights,” she said.
Labor and the Greens have welcomed Canada’s decision to grant a visa Qunun.
The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, confirmed Qunun was granted asylum following a request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Labor and the Greens welcomed the decision on Saturday, which followed a tense week during which Qunun barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Bangkok and used social media to draw attention to her plight.
She had been on her way to Australia and the Australian government had been assessing an application that was being processed at the time Canada granted her asylum.
“We’re pleased the UNHCR process concluded so quickly and that Ms Mohammed Al-Qunun has been offered asylum,” Shayne Neumann, Labor’s immigration and border protection spokesman, said.
“Labor is supportive of any government moves to offer her humanitarian resettlement and we wish Ms Mohammed al-Qunun well.”
Nick McKim, the Greens spokesman for immigration, said he was pleased for the teen.
But he said the immigration minister, David Coleman, had questions to answer about why the Australian government had taken so long to assess her application when Canada managed to do it in one day.
“It’s great news that Rahaf will get freedom and safety,” McKim said.
“We wish her all the best in Canada, but Mr Coleman needs to explain why Australia was taking so long to process her case.
“We should still offer Rahaf a visa so she has the choice to come here if she wants.”
In a statement on Saturday, Coleman said the government welcomed the news that Qunun had been offered a place in Canada.
“The safety of Ms Al-Qunun has always been the Australian Government’s primary concern, and we have been working with the UNHCR and international partners to ensure her claim is assessed appropriately,” he said.
“At the time of the UNHCR’s referral to Canada on January 11, the assessment of Ms Al-Qunun’s case by Australian officials was progressing.”
He defended the government saying Australia had “one of the most generous humanitarian programs in the world, and all applications are considered in accordance with Australian law and procedures”.
“We wish Ms Al-Qunun all the best for her future in Canada,” he said.
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