The UN has said an 18-year-old Saudi Arabian woman who fled her family is a legitimate refugee and has asked Australia to resettle her, Canberra said yesterday, as the Twitter-led campaign to grant her asylum edged toward resolution.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was stopped by authorities at Bangkok’s main airport as she arrived on a flight from Kuwait at the weekend after running away from her family, who she says subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
Thailand initially said it would deport her at the request of Saudi Arabian embassy officials, barring her from traveling on to Australia where al-Qunun said she had intended to claim asylum.
However, armed with a smartphone, she barricaded herself in an airside hotel room and fought back — live-tweeting her fears of deportation in a campaign that swiftly galvanized international support and prompted a sharp U-turn by Thai officials.
Al-Qunun is now in the care of the UN’s refugee agency in Bangkok, which is processing her case.
“The UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” the Australian Department of Home Affairs confirmed in a statement.
The department said it would “consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals.”
Australian officials have strongly hinted that al-Qunun’s request would be accepted.
“If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa,” Australian Minister of Health Greg Hunt had said before the UN determination was made public.
Al-Qunun’s desperate tweets ricocheted across social media with the hashtag #SaveRahaf drawing an outpouring of support, but also the bile of some hardliners in her native country.
She only joined the social media site at the start of this month, but has quickly racked up more than 100,000 followers.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said al-Qunun had renounced Islam, which puts her at “serious risk” of prosecution in Saudi Arabia.
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 international firestorm since al-Qunun’s arrival.
The family’s patriarch met with the UNHCR yesterday morning and will return to “his country” later today, he said.
“Her father is relieved that she is safe,” Surachate said, adding that the “UNHCR will find a third country that will accept her in two days.”
A UNHCR representative told reporters that “the process is still ongoing.”
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