Friday, 22 November, 2019

Saudi teen asylum seeker spotlights ‘strangling’ male guardianship

Rahaf al-Qunun: Dad of Saudi refugee arrives in Bangkok Thailand | Daily Star Saudi teenager could escape to Australia as government said it would 'carefully consider' her claim
Patty Aguilar | 13 January, 2019, 08:25

When an 18 year old Saudi asylum seeker arrived in Bangkok she faced immediate deportation, but instead she is in the hands of the United Nations refugee agency, her social media savvy galvanising a global campaign that caught the Thai government flat-footed.

On Wednesday, Australia's Home Affairs Department confirmed to INSIDER that the UNHCR had referred al-Qunun to them "for consideration for refugee resettlement".

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, had said she feared her relatives would kill her if she was forced to return to them as she had renounced Islam.

The daughter arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait late Saturday, but was stopped from proceeding to her planned destination, Australia.

Photos released on Monday night by immigration police showed the teenager with Thai and United Nations officials after she left the airport transit hotel room where she had been holed up over the weekend.

WATCH: A UNHCR representative visited the transit hotel at Suvarnabhumi airport on Monday where Saudi national Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun has barricaded herself inside a hotel room with a table and a mattress.

"The claims made by Ms Alqunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning", a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said in an earlier statement.

Thailand initially said it would deport her at the request of Saudi embassy officials, barring her from travelling on to Australia where Qunun said she had meant to claim asylum.

Australia said it will now decide whether to grant al-Qunun asylum.

Thai officials met with counterparts from the Kingdom on Tuesday and Maj Gen Surachate Hakparn, Thailand's immigration police chief, said that Saudi officials said they were satisfied with the handling of the case.

Her father and brother arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but al-Qunun "refused to see" them, according to Thai immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn, who has been caught up in the worldwide firestorm since al-Qunun's arrival. The UNHCR is now evaluating her asylum claim, which is expected to take up to a week. She told the world defiantly: "I'm real and exist".

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Saudi Arabia's strict social rules requirem women to have the permission of a male "guardian" to travel.

Halfway around the world, retweets by Saudi Twitter users were noticed by Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy in Montreal who began translating and retweeting Ms Qunun's Arabic tweets at 4am Thailand time, even though she was initially unsure if the account was authentic. She had meant to flee to Australia.

Within 36 hours it prompted Thailand's government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

But, he added, "nobody wants to see a young girl in distress and she has obviously now found a safe haven in Thailand".

He denied abusing or threatening her, and told Surachate that Qunun had "freedom".

"AlAraibi was granted permanent residency by the Australian government in recognition of his status as a refugee", Payne said in a statement, saying that she would seek his safe return to Australia.

By Wednesday afternoon, Qunun had returned to posting updates on Twitter, promising to "broadcast continuously to assure" the public of her condition.

Immigration Minister David Coleman has been contacted for comment.

Saudi Arabia's human rights record has been under heavy scrutiny since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi a year ago.

"When it became clear that she wasn't going to leave, I decided it was important to stay and have someone documenting what was going on", Ms McNeill said. "She is 18 years old, she has an Australian visa, and she has the right to travel where she wishes and no government should interfere in that".

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