Australia looks at resettling Saudi teen who sought asylum in Thailand

Frederick Owens
January 13, 2019

When an 18 year old Saudi asylum seeker arrived in Bangkok she faced immediate deportation, but instead she is in the hands of the United Nations refugee agency, her social media savvy galvanising a global campaign that caught the Thai government flat-footed.

But she was intercepted by Thai authorities, who initially wanted to send her back to her family.al-Qunun says her family consider her a "slave", and would kill her if she were sent back, as punishment for renouncing Islam.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, plotted an escape from what she describes as persistent abuse and oppression by family members in Saudi Arabia.

Qunun, however, was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti immigration officials during transit at Bangkok International Airport.

Her plight shot to public attention when she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to avoid deportation and shared dozens of fearful but defiant messages online insisting on her right to asylum.

In a brief statement, Australia's Department of Home Affairs said it would "consider this referral in the usual way".

Thailand initially said it would deport her at the request of Saudi Arabian embassy officials, barring her from traveling on to Australia where al-Qunun said she had meant to claim asylum.

Australian officials have hinted that Alqunun's request is likely to succeed.

Al-Qunun's father and brother arrived in Thailand but she refused to see them.

She has been taken under the protection of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees in Thailand, which said processing the case and determining next steps could take several days.

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"Everybody was watching. When social media works, this is what happens", said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, of the worldwide outcry. But the Thai government has also said that it wants to protect refugees, and immigration officials have said they do not intend to send al-Qunun back.

Ms Qunun's family could not be reached to respond to her allegations of abuse.

The father, who name has not been released, is a governor in Saudi Arabia, Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said.

The Thai immigration chief said the Saudi embassy had alerted Thai authorities to the case, saying that the woman had run away from her parents and they feared for her safety.

But when she arrived in Bangkok she said a Saudi diplomat met her at the airport and tricked her into handing over her passport and ticket, saying he would secure a visa. She feared for her life if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

Alqunun arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait late Saturday, but was stopped from proceeding to her planned destination of Australia.

"My name is Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq Alqunun, and this is my picture", she tweeted on Sunday from Bangkok. The arrival "scared me a lot", she said Monday on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia's wider human rights record has also come under intense scrutiny since the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in October. However, in repeated statements, including one issued Tuesday, the Saudi Embassy in Thailand said it is only monitoring her situation.

"It has been reported that Rahaf had a Visa to go to Australia, and meant to apply for asylum". However, Immigration Minister David Coleman is "very likely" to grant asylum if the 18-year-old passes all checks. He said it "too early to tell" if she will be granted asylum or refugee status.

"I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than [taking] her passport", a Saudi official said during the meeting, as quoted by Reuters.

Other reports by LeisureTravelAid

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