An 18-year-old Saudi woman seeking passage to asylum in Australia after fleeing her family in Saudi Arabia and renouncing Islam will be temporarily admitted to Thailand, Thai authorities have said.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun barricaded herself inside a transit zone hotel room in Bangkok airport to prevent immigration officials putting her on a flight to Kuwait after she was denied entry to Thailand while en route to Australia.
Ms Qunun says she would be killed if she was returned to Saudi Arabia and vowed not to leave the hotel room until she could see representatives from the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.
Surachate Hakparn, Thailand's immigration police chief, told reporters on Monday evening that Qunun would be granted entry under the protection of the office of the UNHCR, which says it has been in touch with her.
He also said Qunun’s father was due to arrive in Bangkok on Monday night and that officials would establish whether or not she wanted to return to the Middle East with him.
Ms Qunun, who has a three-month tourist visa for Australia, 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.
“I am Rahaf . . . I am in the hotel, I need a country to protect me as soon as possible. I am seeking asylum,” said Ms Qunun, who fled Kuwait while her family was visiting the Gulf country. “My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she said, adding that she was certain she would be imprisoned if sent back. “I’m sure, 100 per cent, they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail,” she said.
A 20-year-old friend of Ms Qunun who did not wish to be named said the threats to her were real. “She’s ex-Muslim and has a very strict family. They’re using violence with her and she faced sexual harassment,” she said. “She received a threat from her cousin – he said he wants to see her blood, he wants to kill her.”
“If they didn’t kill her they couldn’t go [around in] public after this [Qunun renouncing the Muslim faith], so they have to do it,” the friend said. “It’s like: If you’re a man you should prove it. If they don’t kill her they can’t go outside and see other men.”
Ms Qunun’s friend has lived in Australia for three months, and said she was seeking asylum there after being abused in Saudi Arabia. She said she had known Ms Qunun for a year, after connecting with her online. “She’s an activist, she’s a feminist,” she said.
Georg Schmidt, Germany’s ambassador to Thailand, tweeted his support for Ms Qunun, saying: “We share the great concern for Rahaf Mohammed and are in touch with the Thai side and the embassies of the countries she approached.”
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director, said there was no doubt Ms Qunun needed refugee protection and that the UNHCR had to be given immediate access to the hotel.
“Rahaf faces grave harm if she is forced back to Saudi Arabia so she should be allowed to see UNHCR and apply for asylum, and Thailand should agree to follow whatever the UN refugee agency decides,” Mr Robertson said.
“She’s desperately fearful of her family, including her father who is a senior government official, and given Saudi Arabia’s long track record of looking the other way in so-called honour violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be discounted,” he said.
Saudi culture and guardianship policy requires women to have permission from a male relative to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment.
Ms Qunun, from Ha’il, in northwest Saudi Arabia, said she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by Human Rights Watch.
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok said Ms Qunun was being held for not having a return ticket, and that she still had her passport, a claim denied by Ms Qunun. – Guardian