Saudi woman 'given refugee status'

Geneva Stokes
January 9, 2019

Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq Al-Qunun will instead have a chance to make her asylum case to the United Nations refugee agency.

"The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement", Australia's Home Affairs Department said, adding it would "consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals".

Alharbi 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.

But while she was in the air, her influential father had alerted Saudi authorities who in turn pressured Thai authorities at Bangkok airport to seize her passport and deny her access to her connecting flight to Sydney on Saturday.

Her ordeal at the Bangkok airport riveted social media as she posted videos and constantly updated her followers while barricading herself in her hotel room.

Her father, a Saudi government official, and brother landed in the capital last night and immediately asked to see Ms Alqunun.

Thailand's immigration police said during the weekend that Qunun would be sent back to Kuwait on a flight that was departing Monday morning, before allowing her to temporarily stay in the country so the UNHCR could assess her case.

On Sunday Thai authorities said Qunun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia, but they abruptly changed course as her plight pinballed across social media.

Qunun has said she believes she will be imprisoned or killed if sent back, and that her family is so strict they once locked her in a room for six months for cutting her hair.

"We would have hoped that you'd have confiscated her cell phone - it would have been preferable to taking her passport", Sheaibi said, eliciting timid laughter from the translator. "She is 18 years old, she has an Australian visa, and she has the right to travel where she wishes and no government should interfere in that".

The first message from Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, in Arabic, was posted at 3.20am Thai time from the transit area of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport.

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"She is a young Saudi woman whose face has been plastered around the world", Pearson said. "She didn't get that [social media] support and that's why she's in Saudi Arabia now - she's disappeared", Alharbi said.

But her claim for protection is now being assessed by the UNHCR in Bangkok, which will then pass the case over to Australian officials.

"Al-Qunun says she doesn't want to meet with her father or brother".

She said that her family threatens her live for "the most trivial things", and refused to go back in fear of losing her life.

In October, the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey further heightened tensions and put global scrutiny on the country's human rights record.

Since Australia has expressed concern in the past about women's rights in Saudi Arabia, it should "come forward and offer protection for this young woman", Pearson said. She alleged that she was being subjected to physical and psychological abuse by her family.

The UN's refugee agency said on Tuesday it was investigating the case of the teenager.

Thailand has never ratified the United Nations convention that recognises refugee status, and it considers refugees and asylum seekers as it would any other migrant.

According to 9 News, the Australian embassy had contacted the Thai government and the UNHCR's Bangkok office to confirm Alqunun could apply for refugee status.

But she was stopped en route by authorities in Thailand at the request of the Saudi government, which demanded the woman return to her family.

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