UN refugee agency assesses case of Saudi teen who fled to Thailand

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January 8, 2019 6:53 am

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The asylum claim of a young Saudi woman who resisted deportation from Thailand in a gripping, live-tweeted ordeal will take “several days” to assess, the UN’s refugee agency in Bangkok said Tuesday.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrived at Bangkok’s main airport over the weekend on a flight from Kuwait after running away from her family who she alleges subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.

The 18-year-old said she had planned to seek asylum in Australia, fearing she would be killed if sent back by Thai immigration officials who stopped her at the airport on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia’s parlous rights record has been under heavy scrutiny since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.

Initially, Thai authorities said Qunun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia.

But as her plight pinballed across social media including tweets about how she had barricaded herself in a hotel room they abruptly changed course and allowed her to leave the airport late Monday in UNHCR’s care.

The agency said it was “very grateful” that officials did not send Qunun back against her will.

“It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” the UNHCR representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vicentiis, said in a statement.

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.

Lawmakers and activists in Australia and Britain urged their governments to grant asylum to Qunun.

Australian senator Sarah Hanson-Young called on her government, through social media, to issue Qunun an emergency travel document so she could fly to Australia to seek asylum.

The Australian government said it was monitoring the case closely highlighting that “the claims made by Ms Al-Qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning”, said a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Saudi Arabia’s embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

But in an extensive explanation released on Twitter, the embassy denied sending officials to Suvarnabhumi airport to meet Qunun as she arrived from Kuwait, where her family live.

It also said her passport had not been impounded as alleged while explaining it is in contact with her father, a senior regional government official in the kingdom, “to inform him on her situation”.

Another official told a Saudi-owned TV channel that Qunun’s father had contacted the mission for “help” in bringing her back.

Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia 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.

Qunun has said she believes she will be imprisoned or killed if sent back and that her family is so strict it once locked her in a room for six months for cutting her hair.

Under the hashtag #SaveRahaf, the young woman’s desperate pleas became a social media sensation, where she was able to post live updates and videos from the Bangkok airport in both Arabic and English, racking up more than 80,000 followers.

Late Monday, her Twitter account said that her father had arrived in Bangkok. AFP was not able to independently verify the news.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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