Australia has defended its refugee record after accusations it “slow walked” the processing of a Saudi teenage refugee who is now in Canada.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun’s fight for freedom made international headlines after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel and revealed she feared death if she was forced to return to Saudi Arabia.
Her plight prompted Australia to offer her refuge, after she was assessed as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
But as Australian officials processed her claim, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swooped in to offer her asylum.
“Why did Rahaf go to Canada instead of her preferred choice of Australia where she had friends?” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a tweet.
“Because she needed safety from her Saudi pursuers fast, and Canada expedited her case while Australia (under Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton) slow-walked it.”
The accusation followed Mr Dutton’s warning that while Australia was concerned about her plight, it would not offer her “special treatment”.
Ms Alqunun was welcomed in Canada over the weekend by government officials after tweeting she “did it!” and celebrating with a glass of red wine on the flight.
She is now resting at a safe house after Canadian officials expressed fears for her safety.
Immigration Minister David Coleman said Australia was proud of its refugee record but did not directly address why the woman had ended up in Canada.
“Australia welcomes news that Ms Alqunun has been offered a place in Canada’s humanitarian program,” he said.
“The safety of Ms Alqunun 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.
“At the time of the UNHCR’s referral to Canada on January 11, the assessment of Ms Alqunun’s case by Australian officials was progressing. Australia has 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 Alqunun all the best for her future in Canada.”
Labor leader Bill Shorten declined to criticise the Morrison government for not moving more swiftly.
“Oh listen I think that’s a bit of a hard one. By that, I certainly would have welcomed – I wrote to the government and said I supported her being processed as a refugee,’’ he said on Sunday.
“Women around the world and not just in parts of Saudi Arabia receive very poor treatment and I think she had a legitimate, very real case and she was making that case.
“I was just relieved that she has found a place to go to, so if the Canadians take her or if we take her, you know at the end of the day for me, it’s not which country takes her it’s that this woman safe.
“I understand the question. I think that’s something for the government to explain. Clearly she was a woman in great distress and I think that we should do everything we can.
“I don’t know the ins and outs of what happened in the 24 hours and the 48 hours. Even though I was on leave, I certainly wrote to the government and offered them my complete support to help process this young woman and provide her a safe haven free of violence.”