A Saudi teenager has been placed “under the care” of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR after making a desperate plea for asylum upon her arrival in Thailand.
According to 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, she fled from her family during a trip to Kuwait to escape the physical and psychological abuse she received from them.
Qunun said she had been planning to seek asylum in Australia but was stopped by Thai immigration officials upon her landing on Sunday, reports Agence France-Presse.
Fearing for her life should Thai authorities decide to repatriate her, she barricaded herself in her hotel room at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok and demanded UN protection before she could leave.
On Sunday, Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn made a statement that Qunun was denied entry because of her lack of documents. Qunun then used social media to seek help from different countries.
The next day, after the incident made global headlines, the official stated that the asylum seeker won’t be forcibly deported.
Surachate further told reporters that Qunun would be “allowed to stay” following a meeting with UNHCR officials.
“She is under the care of the UNHCR now but we also sent Thai security to help take care [of her],” Surachate told reporters.
Qunun had reportedly told UNHCR officials that she “wants to stay in Thailand for a while seeking asylum to a third country”.
Surachate said that UNHCR, “will take five days to consider her status” and another five days to arrange for travel.
He added that he is set to meet with Saudi diplomats on Tuesday to discuss Thailand’s decision on Qunun’s status.
Qunun has since tweeted that she felt safe “under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities.” She also noted that her passport had been returned to her after it was confiscated on Sunday.
UNHCR Global Spokesperson Babar Baloch confirmed that the teen had “left the airport to a safe place in the city,” noting that she would be further interviewed by agency officials after having some rest.
In an earlier statement on Monday, Surachate said Thai immigration stopped Qunun because Saudi officials informed them that she had fled her family.
“Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die,” he was quoted as saying. “We will take care of her as best as we can.”
Qunun, a daughter of a senior regional government official, also revealed that Saudi and Kuwaiti officials confiscated her passport upon her arrival.
While Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson has backed this statement, Abdullah al-Shuaibi, charge d’affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, denied this.
In an interview with Saudi-owned TV channel Khalijia, the embassy official said that the woman’s father contacted the diplomatic mission for “help” bringing her back.
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok also released a statement on Twitter, saying that Qunun was stopped by Thai authorities for “violating the law.”
The Saudi kingdom, which imposes the world’s strictest restrictions on women, has a “guardianship system” which gives men authority in making certain decisions on behalf of their female family members. Women in Saudi not only face punishment for “moral” crimes, but also become victims of “honor killings” by their relatives.
Qunun said sending her back would likely result in imprisonment and was “sure 100%” that her own family would kill her.
“My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she revealed.
Robertson said Qunun’s renouncement of Islam also puts her, “at serious risk of prosecution by the Saudi Arabian government.”
In a separate interview with Reuters
, Robertson revealed that the teen’s father and brother have arrived in Bangkok and are demanding to meet her.
“The father is now here in Thailand and that’s a source of concern. We have no idea what he is going to do … whether he will try to find out where she is and go harass her. We don’t know whether he is going to try to get the embassy to do that,” Robertson said.
A representative from the Australian government said that they are monitoring the case “closely,” noting that the claims made by Qunun, “that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning.”
Australian embassy representatives in Bangkok have also coordinated with Thai authorities and the UNHCR to “seek assurances” that she will be able to access the “refugee status determination process.”