Saudi woman barricades herself in Thai hotel to stop deportation

Rahaf al-Qunun, 18, has appealed for asylum saying she was abused by her family and fears death if repatriated.

    Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who says she is fleeing her country and family, seen in a room in Bangkok in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media [@rahaf84427714 via Reuters]
    Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who says she is fleeing her country and family, seen in a room in Bangkok in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media [@rahaf84427714 via Reuters]

    A Saudi woman held at Bangkok airport who says she is fleeing domestic abuse barricaded herself in a hotel room on Monday to prevent her deportation by Thai authorities.

    An immigration official later said she would not be forced to leave the Southeast Asian nation because of concerns for her well-being. 

    Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, said she fled Kuwait while her family was visiting the Gulf country and had planned to travel on from Thailand to Australia to seek asylum. She said she was detained after leaving her plane in Bangkok and told she would be sent back to Kuwait.

    Al-Qunun shared photos of herself on Twitter in the room where she has been held since her arrival the previous day, as officials and police gathered outside the door to take her to a plane to return her to Kuwait.

    A Thai court rejected an attempt to block her deportation, but hours later the country's immigration chief reversed plans to expel al-Qunun citing concerns for her safety.

    "The flight this morning was via Kuwait Airlines to send her back to Saudi Arabia. If she does not want to leave, we will not force her," chief of immigration police Surachate Hakparn told reporters.

    Surachate also said he would meet officials from the UN's refugee agency later in the day to discuss her asylum plans.

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    Passport seized

    Al-Qunun appealed for the UNHCR to help her. "I'm not leaving my room until I see UNHCR," she said in a video posted on Twitter. "I want asylum."

    Rights group Amnesty International released a statement on Monday saying the arbitrary confiscation of a passport "violates the right to freedom of movement".

    The group also said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has requested access to Rahaf, which the Thai authorities have yet to provide.

    "The Thai authorities are bound by the general prohibition not to transfer persons to any place where they would face a real risk of serious human rights abuses. Rahaf is entitled to fair and effective safeguards against any deportation and to international protection," Samah Hadid, Amnesty's Middle East director of campaigns, said in the statement.

    Al-Qunun was detained after she got off her flight in Bangkok. She said she had originally planned to spend a few days in Thailand, a popular destination for medical treatment, so her actions would not create suspicion when she left Kuwait.

    "When I landed at the airport, someone came and said he would process the [Thai] visa but he took my passport. He came back with what seemed to be airport security and said that my parents objected and said I must return to Saudi Arabia via Kuwait Airways," she told the Reuters news agency.

    Her claim her passport had been seized was backed by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

    Al-Qunun told the AFP news agency on Sunday that her male guardian had reported her for travelling "without his permission".

    'Losing hope'

    She said she was trying to flee her family, whom she accused of subjecting her to physical and psychological abuse.

    Al-Qunun said she was certain she would be jailed if she were sent back.

    "My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair," she said.

    "I'm sure 100 percent they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail," she said, adding she was "scared" and "losing hope".

    The UNHCR said according to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum seekers cannot be returned to their country of origin if they fear their life is under threat.

    Georg Schmidt, the German ambassador to Thailand, wrote on Twitter he had "great concern" for al-Qunun and was in touch with the Thai authorities and the embassies of other countries about her situation.

    "Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty and other serious harm if returned against their will," Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW, also said in a statement.

    "Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation, and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee."

    Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was stopped in transit in the Philippines in April 2017 when she attempted to flee her family.

    An airline security official told activists that Lasloom was heard "screaming and begging for help" as men carried her "with duct tape on her mouth, feet and hands" at the airport.

    There was no immediate comment by the Saudi embassy in Thailand and officials in Riyadh.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies