Online outcry saved Saudi woman’s life, says friend

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun barricaded herself in hotel room in Bangkok airport

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the Saudi Arabian woman who fled her family and is now under UN protection in Thailand, has been sustained through the "terrifying" ordeal by thousands of online messages of support that probably saved her life, a friend has said.

Nourah Alharbi (20), said supporters of Ms Qunun on social media had saved her life.

Ms Alharbi said Ms Qunun was buoyed when she saw how many messages about her were being posted online. “She couldn’t believe it. Today when I was calling her ... [she said] she can see the thousands of messages, all of them supporting her. She’s terrified and stressed, and when she saw the messages it really made a difference for her.”

Now based in Sydney, Ms Alharbi said she fled Saudi Arabia herself after suffering abuse from her family, and is seeking asylum in Australia. She has kept in close contact with Ms Qunun throughout her ordeal.


She mentioned the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman who in April 2017 was returned to Saudi Arabia from the Philippines against her will and whose fate is unclear. "She didn't get that [social media] support and that's why she's in Saudi Arabia now – she's disappeared," Ms Alharbi said.

On Sunday, Ms Qunun (18) barricaded herself in a hotel room inside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport to prevent her forcible return to a family she claimed would kill her, following her renouncing of Islam.

She tweeted about her situation, and the Twitter hashtag #SaveRahaf soon gained support. Supporters demanded she stay in Thailand rather than be returned to Kuwait, the point of her departure, and lobbied governments to offer her asylum.

Ms Alharbi said Ms Qunun was keen to leave the country after hearing reports her father had travelled to Thailand but that she felt safe for the time being. “She called me and said the UN were good and were protecting her,” she said. “Security keep coming and asking about her. She wants to tell everyone that she wants to go outside Thailand – to any safe country.”

Asylum application

Urging people to keep posting messages about Ms Qunun, Ms Alharbi said: “Yesterday we won, but this is not the big winning. We got her out [of the airport] but we win when we get her out from Thailand. And we will, properly.”

Ms Qunun was interviewed by staff from the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, on Tuesday, after they met her on Monday. “It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” the agency’s Thailand representative, Giuseppe de Vincentiis, said in a statement. “We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back [Ms Qunun] against her will and are extending protection to her,” he said.

The Australian government said on Tuesday it would “carefully consider” Ms Qunun’s asylum application after the UNHCR process had concluded.

Ms Qunun was detained on arrival at Bangkok and denied entry to Thailand while en route to Australia, where she said she intended to seek asylum. It was confirmed on Monday that Ms Qunun had a valid three-month tourist visa for Australia, issued to her Saudi passport.

Ms Qunun said she was abducted after arriving in Bangkok and had her passport was confiscated by Saudi Arabian diplomatic staff. She demanded access to the UNHCR and barricaded herself inside her hotel room in fear she would be forced on to a plane after Kuwait Airways officials had come to her door, but Monday's 11.15am flight departed without her.

In a short press release distributed to media outside its embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday, the Saudi government said it had not demanded her deportation, adding the case was a “family affair”, but under the “care and attention” of the embassy.

The head of Thailand's immigration police, Gen Surachate Hakparn, had previously said Ms Qunun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia because she was "unsafe" without a guardian in Thailand, and claimed she did not have the documentation to go on to Australia.

But late on Monday he promised she would not be deported and agreed to consult the UNCHR. He later said she had been taken to a safe house for her asylum claim to be processed. “If she goes home it will be dangerous for her so Thailand is ready to help,” he told media. “We are working with the foreign affairs ministry and UNHCR and today we will allow her entry to Thailand. UNHCR is now taking care of her and working on her asylum claim.”

Gen Surachate said Ms Qunun’s father and brother had arrived in Bangkok and wanted to talk to her, but that UN officials would need to approve any such meeting.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs said it was monitoring the case closely. “The claims made by Ms Al-Qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning,” a spokesman said on Monday night.

Ms Qunun said in a video posted on social media from inside the airport that she was trying to escape from her family because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. She has appealed for help from Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.

Her case has brought international attention to the obstacles women face in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom also faces intense scrutiny over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which has renewed criticism of its human rights record. – Guardian