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Saudi woman alleging abuse will remain in Thailand as refugee claim is processed

Thailand reversed plans Jan. 7 to deport an 18-year-old Saudi woman stranded at a Bangkok airport after fleeing her family due to concerns over her safety. (Video: Reuters)

HONG KONG — A young Saudi woman who fled her family in fear for her life was admitted into Thailand on Monday night while the United Nations’ refugee agency assesses her asylum claim.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, will be taken to a safe location in Bangkok, a hotel where U.N. staff members will interview her and process her status determination in coming days. She originally was set to be deported to Kuwait, where her family was waiting for her. 

On Monday night, after she had left the airport, Alqunun tweeted that she had heard that her father just arrived in Thailand, and that it “worried and scared” her.

“I want to go to another country that I seek asylum in,” she wrote. “But at least I feel [safe] now under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities. And I finally got my passport back.”

Being able to stay in Bangkok is a victory for Alqunun and her friends and activists who began a social media campaign to stave off her seemingly imminent deportation, despite her pleas that she would be killed if she were to return home. She was on holiday with her family in Kuwait when she fled to Bangkok, hoping to make it to Australia to seek asylum.

Thai authorities had detained her at a hotel in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport since Saturday night and initially planned to send her back to Kuwait on a flight departing at 11:15 a.m. local time Monday. Alqunun, however, barricaded herself in her room and demanded to meet with representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), missing the flight.

Hours later, agency officials were granted access to her “to assess her need for international refugee protection and find an immediate solution for her situation,” according to an emailed statement from Caroline Gluck, a UNHCR spokeswoman. Immigration officials released photos of Alqunun leaving the small hotel room in the airport’s transit area, escorted by U.N. officials and Thai authorities. 

Surachate Hakparn, head of Thailand’s immigration bureau, said Monday evening that authorities initially had to detain her as she arrived with “no return destination and no money.” But, he added, on realizing that “she had some trouble . . . Thailand welcomed her with open arms.”

“If deporting her would result in her death, we definitely wouldn’t want to do that,” he said earlier in the day. Thailand has handed her over to UNHCR, he said, which will process her claim for refugee status in about five days. She would like to be sent to a third country, Surachate added.

Alqunun’s father was due to arrive in Thailand on Monday night. Thai authorities said she can decide whether to see him and whether to return with him.

Surachate said Thai immigration authorities are set to meet with Saudi officials on Tuesday in Bangkok to explain their procedures and why they did not deport her.

Alqunun began a social media campaign late Saturday on Twitter chronicling her detention and even posting a photocopy of her passport to prove her identity. The young woman, who is from the city of Hail, in northwestern Saudi Arabia, suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of family members, including her brother, according to a 19-year old woman who said she and Alqunun have been friends for several years. 

The woman said Alqunun’s family locked her up for months at one point as punishment for cutting her hair.

The woman, who lives in Sweden and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she also fled Saudi Arabia two years ago because her family was abusing her. Alqunun was in contact as she planned her escape, the woman said. 

“Her friends believe her life is in danger. We don’t know what the Saudi Embassy will do. We hope that the embassy from another country can help her,” the woman said.

On Monday morning, hours before her scheduled deportation, Alqunun posted several videos of herself formally requesting asylum and stating that she will not leave her room without a meeting with a UNHCR representative.

“She’s desperately fearful of her family, including her father, who is a senior government official, and given Saudi Arabia’s long track record of looking the other way in so-called honor violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be ignored,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who was in touch with Alqunun.

Saudi campaign to abduct and silence rivals abroad goes back decades

Gluck said UNHCR would not comment on the outcome of its meeting with Alqunun “for reasons of confidentiality and protection.” 

“UNHCR consistently advocates that refugees and asylum seekers — having been confirmed or claimed to be in need of international protection — cannot be returned to their countries of origin according to the principle of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement is an international principle that prevents states from expelling or returning persons to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened,” she said.  

Surachate told reporters Sunday that Alqunun tried to enter Thailand but did not have the appropriate documents to get a visa on arrival and so had to be repatriated. Alqunun, however, said that she never tried to enter Thailand and that her passport was taken from her as soon as she landed.

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention but does host a large number of refugees. It has signed on to international human rights treaties that bar it from deporting people to places where they are at serious risk of harm and abuse.

In a statement posted on the Twitter page of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok said that Alqunun was stopped by authorities in Thailand for “violating the laws” and that the embassy has been in “constant contact” with her family. 

The dramatic scenes and Alqunun’s pleas for help echoed those of other women who have tried to flee abusive or restrictive conditions in Saudi Arabia. In 2017, Dina Lasloom, 24, was similarly attempting to seek asylum in Australia 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. 

In Saudi Arabia, women need a male relative’s approval to depart the country — restrictions that last from birth until death. Alqunun could face criminal charges in Saudi Arabia for “parental disobedience” and for harming the reputation of the kingdom by publicly appealing for help. Human Rights Watch noted in a statement that this system of guardianship makes it extremely difficult for victims to seek protection or legal recourse for domestic abuse. 

Thailand recently detained Hakeem al-Araibi, 25, a former soccer player from Bahrain who had been granted refugee status in Australia after speaking out against a Bahraini official. He was detained Nov. 27 after arriving in Bangkok for his honeymoon. He remains in custody as he awaits a court decision on Bahrain’s extradition request.

Fahim reported from Istanbul. Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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