A young Saudi woman fleeing family abuse is awaiting a decision on whether Australia will grant her asylum request after a dramatic standoff — broadcast on social media — with Thai officials who impeded her escape.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said Monday that Rahaf Mohammed Al-qunun, 18, was safe for the moment after having her passport seized in Bangkok en route from Kuwait to Australia.
Al-qunun barricaded herself in a Thai hotel room over the weekend to avoid deportation, tweeting to draw attention to her plight: “I am the girl who escaped Kuwait to Thailand. My life is in danger if I’m forced to return to Saudi Arabia.”
@realDonaldTrump please help me
I’m hopping that you heard about me
I’m Saudi girl who fled from her family
Now I could be killed if they drag me back to my male guardian
— Rahaf Mohammed رهف محمد القنون (@rahaf84427714) January 6, 2019
“I’m rahaf mohmed, formally seeking a refugee status to any country that would protect me from getting harmed or killed due to leaving my religion and torture from my family,” she tweeted on Monday.
Al-Qunun said she was confined in her room for six months for cutting her hair, and has suffered beatings and death threats from her male relatives.
Australian reporter Sophie McNeill locked herself in the room as well to help protect Al-qunun.
— Sophie McNeill (@Sophiemcneill) January 7, 2019
A network of Saudi women’s rights activists jumped in to help get #SaveRahaf trending. One of those women, who lives in Canada with her husband, told CBC that she’s now “actually feeling some kind of guilt because her story went viral and I’ve heard about other other women that have been, like, their fathers their brothers, they just took their phone.”
“It is scary. You know, even when you are trying to support this campaign in Saudi Arabia, you always have to cover your tracks,” she said. “I have my family there in Saudi Arabia. They don’t know that I am doing this. I was talking to my father when I last visited my family in Saudi. My father just told me that … if I’m thinking to just leave Islam and not be a Muslim anymore, that he’s going to kill me by himself. And I just got so scared.”
After the international outcry, Thai officials agreed to release Al-qunun’s passport and allow contact with UNHCR officials. The UN agency would not release details of the hotel meeting, but confirmed the Saudi woman is safe.
“She’s now in a secure place, out of the hotel,” said Cécile Pouilly, senior communications officer for UNHCR. “She’s now in a state of emotional distress after all she’s gone through and she needs to be given a bit of breathing space, but in the coming days, we will keep on meeting with her to try to assess her protection needs.”
The UN agency reminded Thailand in a statement that “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.”
The father and brother of Al-qunun landed in Bangkok on Tuesday night, but Thai officials said the family’s access to her would have to be approved by UNHCR.
“It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” UNHCR’s Thailand representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis said. “We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back [Al-qunun] against her will and are extending protection to her.”
Australia said it would refuse entry to Al-qunun on her tourist visa, but is weighing granting her a humanitarian visa.
Human Rights Watch notes that, in addition to facing potential charges of “parental disobedience” if returned to Saudi Arabia, she could face criminal prosecution for “harming the reputation of the kingdom” because of her public appeals for help.
“Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “…Once again we are seeing the abusive influence of Saudi authorities abroad as they seek to forcibly return Saudi women fleeing mistreatment and violence by their families.”
“Apparently, Saudi authorities not only want to perpetuate systematic discrimination of women at home and prevent Saudi women from freely traveling abroad, but also ensure that those who manage to escape are forced back to a life of abuse.”