The asylum claim of a Saudi Arabian woman who resisted deportation from Thailand is to take several days to assess, the UN said yesterday, as the 18-year-old’s family, who she accuses of abusing her, was due to arrive in Bangkok.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun on Sunday arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on a flight from Kuwait after running away from her family, who she has alleged subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
Al-Qunun said that she planned to seek asylum in Australia, fearing that she would be killed if sent back by Thai immigration officials who stopped her at the airport.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has been under heavy scrutiny since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.
Initially, Thai authorities said that al-Qunun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia.
However, as her plight pinballed across social media — including tweets about how she had barricaded herself in a hotel room — they abruptly changed course and allowed her to leave the airport on Monday in the care of the UN’s refugee agency.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that it was “very grateful” officials did not send al-Qunun back against her will.
“It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” UNHCR representative in Thailand Giuseppe de Vicentiis said in a statement.
Thailand is not a signatory to a UN convention on refugees and asylum seekers are typically deported or wait years to be resettled in third countries.
The UNHCR has insisted that anyone with an asylum claim should not be sent back to the country they fled under the principle of non-refoulement.
In a short news release yesterday distributed to media outside its embassy in Bangkok, the Saudi Arabian government said that it had not demanded her deportation, adding that the case is a “family affair,” but under the “care and attention” of the embassy.
In an earlier and separate statement released on Twitter, the embassy also denied sending officials to the airport to meet al-Qunun as she arrived via Kuwait or impounding her passport — as she has alleged.
The embassy added that it had made contact with her father, a senior regional government official in the kingdom, “to inform him on her situation.”
Thai Immigration Bureau Commissioner Surachate Hakparn told reporters that al-Qunun’s father and brother were due in Thailand later yesterday.
He said that he would talk to the UNHCR about the potential of a meeting between the family members.
“Rahaf is not a political asylum case,” he said. “It is not political at all.”
Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women, including a guardianship system that allows male family members to make decisions on behalf of female relatives.
Al-Qunun has said that she believes she would be imprisoned or killed if sent back, and that her family is so strict it once locked her in a room for six months for cutting her hair.
Under the hashtag #SaveRahaf, the young woman’s desperate pleas became a social media sensation, and she was able to post live updates and videos from the airport in both Arabic and English, gaining more than 80,000 followers.
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