ADELAIDE, Australia — A Saudi teenager fleeing her family will be considered for resettlement in Australia, the country’s Home Affairs Department announced Wednesday.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, flew to Bangkok on Saturday to escape what she said was an abusive family. When Thai authorities attempted to deport her to Kuwait, where her family was, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and pleaded on Twitter to see a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The turnaround in her case, from imminent deportation to possible resettlement in a third country, has largely been credited to a social media campaign that the young woman and some of her friends launched largely on Twitter.
“Happy!” Tweeted Alqunun on Wednesday after the Australian announcement. “The whole world knew about the situation of Saudi women, and about the brutality and oppression of the government! Our message girls, has arrived.”
Her plight gained widespread attention as she documented every step of her detention and interactions with Thai authorities, prompting them to eventually allow UNHCR access to her. She left the airport after two days in the custody of the refugee agency, which said it would consider her request for refugee status.
In remarks to Thai authorities caught on video and widely circulated, the Saudi charge d’affaires in Bangkok, Abdalelah Mohammed al-Shuaibi, groused that airport officials should have confiscated her phone rather than her passport.
Alqunun, who comes from Hail in northwestern Saudi Arabia, said she feared for her life if she were to be returned to her family. Her friends said she had suffered abuse at their hands.
Thai officials say that Alqunun’s father arrived hoping to see her, but she declined and refused to meet with him.
“He wanted to make sure that his daughter was safe,” said Surachate Hakparn, head of Thailand’s immigration bureau. Her father, he added, denied that he was physically abusive or had forced her into marriage.
“He wants to take his daughter home and now his wife is seriously ill because she is very worried about the daughter — this is all a family issue,” he added.
The Australian decision does not grant Alqunun automatic refugee status in Australia, but it makes a positive asylum decision far more likely.
“The Department of Home Affairs will consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals,” the Department of Home Affairs said in an emailed statement.
Human Rights Watch, which advocated for Alqunun during the drama, welcomed Australia’s decision.
“Just two days ago, she was barricaded in a hotel room fighting for her life — and now we see this wonderful and astonishing turn of events,” said Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director. “What’s important is get her safe, so Australia really needs to move quickly to get her out of Thailand.”
After Alqunun left the airport, she was taken to a hotel in Bangkok where U.N. staffers were expected to interview her and process her claim.
A Bangkok-based spokeswoman for UNHCR neither confirmed nor denied that Alqunun has been granted refugee status and said it was unlikely that the agency would be providing further updates on her case.
In a statement Tuesday, UNHCR said it was continuing to look into her case “as part of a process to assess her need for international protection.”
“We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back Ms. Alqunun against her will and are extending protection for her,” said UNHCR’s representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vincentiis. “It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” he added. “For reasons of protection and confidentiality, we are not in a position to comment on the details of individual cases.”
UNHCR maintains that refugees and asylum seekers seeking international protection should not be returned to their countries of origin.
The referral of Alqunun to Australia’s Home Affairs Department does suggest she has been granted some kind of refugee status by the U.N. agency.
“Australia’s refugee intake policy has two main streams, either through humanitarian programs of the government or the UNHCR’s referral program,” said Nurmuhammad Said Majid, an Australian immigration consultant. “Given the sensitivity of this issue, the process might still be prioritized and be processed quicker than usually.”
All individuals entering Australia through those two programs need to undergo security, character and health checks. In the 18-year old’s case, some of those checks could be sped up or finalized upon arrival in Australia, he added.
Even before the referral, Australian officials had been making positive comments about Alqunun’s case. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Health Minister Greg Hunt said they were considering a humanitarian visa for Alqunun if she received refugee status.
Australia’s migration policies have increasingly come under fire in recent years, especially its policy of housing illegal immigrants in grim offshore camps. The strict legislation, however, affects only those attempting to enter outside legal channels. Alqunun’s case is different because she was referred by UNHCR.
“For women who are at risk of harm in their respective home countries or by any individual or groups, Australia is actually one of the most welcoming nations with the most promising resettlement programs,” Majid said. “Eighteen-year-old Alqunun would likely fit into that category.”
Other Saudi women in recent years have tried to flee their families, alleging abuse, but have had less success than Alqunun. In 2017, Dina Lasloom, 24, was similarly attempting to seek asylum in Australia, escaping Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws, when she was stopped at an airport in Manila. She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia and has not been publicly heard from since.
Under this system of guardianship, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry or be released from prison. Sometimes a male’s consent is also necessary to work. The restrictions last until death.
This system, human rights activists say, makes it very difficult for those like Alqunun to gain protection from abusive situations without resorting to drastic measures, such as covertly fleeing to a third country without approval.
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok and Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.