The Australian government said on Tuesday that it will “carefully consider” the asylum claim by Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who fled alleged abuse from her family and is now in the care of the UN humanitarian agency in Bangkok after she fended off deportation in a gripping, live-tweeted ordeal.
Australia’s Department of Home Affairs hinted at the possibility of granting al-Qunun refugee status, saying it was “pleased” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was assessing her claim.
“Any application by Ms al-Qunun for a humanitarian visa will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded,” a Home Affairs official told the AFP news agency.
In a separate statement to Australia’s The New Daily, the government said it is making a representation to the Thai government and UNHCR’s office in Bangkok to assess al-Qunun’s claim “expeditiously”.
In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters the process looking into al-Qunun’s “asylum claim has started” and could take several days.
Thailand is not a signatory to a UN convention on refugees, and asylum seekers are typically deported or wait years to be resettled in third countries.
The UNHCR insists anyone with an asylum claim should not be sent back to the country they fled under the principle of non-refoulement.
In a short press release distributed to media outside its embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday, the Saudi government said it had not demanded her deportation, adding the case is a “family affair”, but under the “care and attention” of the embassy.
Al-Qunun is reportedly the daughter of a high-ranking Saudi official. Bangkok Post reported that her father and an elder brother are due to arrive in Bangkok.
Sophie McNeil, a reporter for ABC Australia in Thailand, told Al Jazeera that the teenager said that she lived “in an abusive environment at home” and that “she was punished for saying things”.
Father & brother of #Rahaf must understand it's her decision on whether she wants to see them or not. #Thailand immigration & police must protect her from intimidation or violence by family. @hrw is monitoring closely! https://t.co/JlbTkTYNkn #SaveRahaf @UNHCRThailand pic.twitter.com/C6J851lYoN
— Phil Robertson (@Reaproy) January 8, 2019
“It is very incredible that the Australian government have offered her an asylum, given that the Australian government is not well known for its well treatment of refugees,” said McNeil, who spent hours with al-Qunun in her hotel room at the airport in Bangkok.
“Her dream might come true, we just have to wait and see,” she said.
In a statement posted on social media, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that the Thai government and UNHCR should deny the request of al-Qunun’s father and brother to meet her.
“Only she can make that choice, she’s an adult woman who can make her own decisions,” Robertson wrote.
Al-Qunun arrived at the Thai capital’s main airport on a flight from Kuwait over the weekend, after running away from her family, whom she says subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
Al-Qunun said she planned to seek asylum in Australia, fearing she would be killed if repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her at the airport.
Her ordeal at the Bangkok airport riveted social media as she posted videos and constantly updated her followers while barricading herself in her hotel room.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has been under heavy scrutiny since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi late last year.
The kingdom has some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women, including a guardianship system that allows male family members to make decisions on behalf of female relatives.