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Saudi teenager waits in Thailand for asylum

January 8, 2019

The 18-year-old, who says she renounced Islam and fled her abusive family while traveling in Kuwait, is to be allowed to stay in Thailand while the UN evaluates her case. She sent out pleas for help via Twitter.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun in the Bangkok airport hotel room
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/Human Rights Watch/Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun has attracted more than 85,000 followers on Twitter as she waits in Thailand under the protection of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is evaluating her bid for asylum.

"We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back Ms. Alqunun against her will and are extending protection for her," Giuseppe de Vicentiis, UNHCR's representative in Thailand, said on Tuesday. "It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps."

Alqunun said she wanted to apply for asylum in a country such as Australia, Canada, the US or the UK. On Twitter, she wrote that she feared for her life if she were to be sent back to Saudi Arabia, where she said she was being forced into a marriage. She also wrote that she had given up Islam.

Thai immigration police chief Major General Surachate Hakparn confirmed that Alqunun's case could take up to a week to assess: "We will not send anyone to die. We will not do that," he said. "We will adhere to human rights under the rule of law." He said her father and brother were due in Thailand on Tuesday.

Germany's ambassador to Thailand, Georg Schmidt, expressed "great concern" for Alqunun and said he would remain in contact with Thai authorities and ambassadors of countries to which she had turned.

On Tuesday, Australia's government announced that it would await the results of the UN's assessment before making a decision. "Any application by Ms. Alqunun for a humanitarian visa will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded," a Department of Home Affairs official said.

Escape from Kuwait

Alqunun slipped away from her family while she was in Kuwait and boarded a flight to Thailand. In Saudi Arabia she would have been unable to travel without a man's consent. 

On her arrival in Bangkok on Saturday night, she was interviewed by a series of people who told her contradictory statements about what would happen to her

Thailand is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. Asylum-seekers are typically deported or wait years to be resettled in third countries.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun barricaded herself inside the Bangkok airport hotel room
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun barricaded herself inside the Bangkok airport hotel roomImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/Human Rights Watch/Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun

From her hotel room at Bangkok airport, Alqunun sent out a series of tweets, asking for asylum and help, saying she feared that she would be in real danger if forced to return to her family in Saudi Arabia, who were forcing her into marriage. She said she had been beaten and male relatives had threatened to kill her. She added that she was kept her in her room for six months for cutting her hair.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Thailand to allow Alqunun to travel on to Australia: "She has a valid Australian visa," said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director. "The key thing is: She should not be sent back to Saudi Arabia, she should not be sent back into harm's way."

Women who try to escape their families in Saudi Arabia have few options. They may be sent to shelters where their movements are restricted, or face arrest for disobeying their legal guardians. In the most recent high-profile case, Dina Ali Lasloom was stopped en route to Australia, where she planned to seek asylum in 2017. Forced to return to Saudi Arabia, she has not been heard from in public since.

jm/msh (AP, dpa)

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