Saudi teenager seeking asylum may get fast-tracked refugee status

Clay Curtis
January 9, 2019

She says her passport has now been returned to her, after it was reportedly seized by a Saudi diplomat when she flew into Thailand.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, who fled from her family and barricaded herself inside a Bangkok airport hotel to prevent Thai authorities expelling her, was allowed to leave the airport after talks with the United Nations refugee agency late on Monday.

The teenager, who claimed that she has been physically and mentally abused by her family, attracted worldwide media attention when she made a desperate call for asylum through her Twitter account claiming that she would be killed if she was returned to her family.

Human Rights Watch's Phil Robertson, in contact with Qunun since she started live-tweeting her ordeal, said her father and brother were "the two male relatives (Qunun) most fears" and could "physically harm her in an effort to compel her to return". Both countries have said she was stopped because she didn't have a return ticket, hotel reservation or itinerary with her upon arrival.

"The government has made representations to the Thai government and the Bangkok office of the UNHCR about its serious concerns on this matter and the need for Al-Qunun's claim to be assessed expeditiously", the official said.

An application for a humanitarian visa "will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded".

"She won't be sent anywhere tonight", Thailand's immigration police chief, Major General Surachate Hakparn, said at a news conference at the airport.

But who is Rahaf al-Qunun and why is her life in danger?

"I'm not going to open the door I want United Nations", one later tweet from her account said.

The kingdom offered various shifting accounts around the circumstances of his death before eventually settling on the explanation that he died in a botched operation to forcibly bring him back to Saudi Arabia.

"She is going to be found as a refugee because she has made very clear that she has renounced Islam ..."

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Thailand's immigration police chief met Tuesday with officials from the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok, as Saudi Arabia tried to distance itself from accusations that it tried to block a young woman's effort to flee her family and seek asylum overseas.

"The Australian Government is pleased that Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun is having her claim for protection assessed by the UNHCR", a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told SBS News. She said access to twitter had "changed the game" in what was wished for her.

This forced the Thai officials to come to the decision to deport her back to her country for "violating the law".

"We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back (Qunun) against her will and are extending protection to her", he said.

Ms Alqunun said she had been abused by her family and would be killed if she returned home. Public pressure prompted Thai officials to return her passport and let her temporarily stay in Thailand. "I'm shouting out for help of humanity", she tweeted.

"It could take several days to process the case and determine the next steps", he said in the statement.

Labor's foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said she was concerned by the reports over the situation and had sought further information from the government.

In a short press release distributed to media outside its embassy in Bangkok 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. "She didn't get that [social media] support and that's why she's in Saudi Arabia now - she's disappeared", Alharbi said.

She was held in an airside hotel room while Thai officials said they would put her on the next flight back.

"Due to privacy concerns, we can not comment on a specific case without signed consent", said Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

The kingdom's human rights record has been under heavy scrutiny since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country's embassy in Istanbul past year.

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