Rahaf al-Qunun: Thailand admits Saudi woman seeking asylum

Teenager seeking passage to asylum in Australia claims she was abused by her family and fears death if repatriated.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun
Al-Qunun leaves Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on Monday evening [AP]

Thailand’s immigration police chief has announced that the young Saudi woman seeking passage to asylum in Australia will be temporarily admitted to the country for evaluation by the UN refugee agency.

Surachate Hakparn told reporters on Monday that 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun would be granted entry under the protection of the office of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR).

He said the UN agency would take at least five to seven days to evaluate her case.

Surachate’s announcement came after Thai authorities allowed a UN team to meet al-Qunun.

Photos published by the Associated Press news agency showed al-Qunun and several Thai officials leaving the Bangkok hotel on Monday evening, but her exact destination was not made public.

Al-Qunun later posted on social media saying that her father had arrived in Bangkok, and that she is “worried and scared”. She also posted a photo of her passport, which was reportedly confiscated by Thai authorities earlier.

Al-Qunun had barricaded herself at the hotel earlier to prevent authorities from deporting her.

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

UNHCR also said on Monday that it was assessing al-Qunun’s “need for international refugee protection.”

It said that “for reasons of confidentiality and protection” it would not release details of their meeting.

Al-Qunun 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 had 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.

Passport seized

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

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.

Rahaf Alqunun
This screen grab from a video released to AFPTV via the Twitter account of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun on January 7, 2019 shows a still of Qunun speaking in Bangkok on January 7. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun held at Bangkok airport said she would be killed if she was repatriated by Thai immigration officials, who confirmed the 18-year-old was denied entry to the country on January 6. Qunun told AFP she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived in Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by Human Rights Watch.
Handout / Courtesy of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun / AFP

“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”.

Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, told Saudi-owned TV channel Khalijia that the woman’s father, a senior regional government official, had contacted the diplomatic mission for “help” bringing her back.

But he denied that her passport had been seized and that embassy officials were present inside the airport.

A Twitter statement from the Saudi embassy in Bangkok said al-Qunun was stopped by Thai authorities for “violating the law”.

‘Losing hope’

Al-Qunun said she was trying to flee her family, whom she accused of subjecting her to physical and psychological abuse, and that 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.

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.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies