BANGKOK: The head of Thailand’s immigration police said Monday that a young Saudi woman who was stopped in Bangkok as she was trying to travel to Australia for asylum to escape alleged abuse by her family will not be sent anywhere against her wishes.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun remained barricaded in an airport hotel room while sending out desperate pleas for help over social media. The 18-year-old began posting on Twitter late Saturday after her passport was taken away when she arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait. She has been appealing for aid from the United Nations refugee agency, known as UNHCR, and anyone else who can help.
“I’m not leaving my room until I see UNHCR. I want asylum,” she said in a video posted to Twitter.
Her planned forced departure Monday morning was averted as she stayed in her room, with furniture piled up against the door, photos she posted online showed.
Alqunun’s plight mirrors that of other Saudi women who in recent years have turned to social media to amplify their calls for help while trying to flee abusive families. Alqunun’s Twitter account has attracted tens of thousands of followers in less than 48 hours and her story has grabbed the attention of foreign governments and the UN refugee agency.
Her pleas for asylum have also brought international attention to the obstacles women face in Saudi Arabia under male guardianship laws, which require that women, regardless of their age, have the consent of a male relative — usually a father or husband — to travel, obtain a passport or marry.
It also shows the limits of reforms being pushed by Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman as he struggles to repair damage to his reputation after the grisly killing three months ago of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul.
On Twitter, Alqunun wrote of being in “real danger” if forced to return to her family in Saudi Arabia, and has claimed in media interviews that she could be killed. She told the BBC that she had renounced Islam and is fearful of her father’s retaliation.
Alqunun told Human Rights Watch that she was fleeing beatings and death threats from her male relatives who forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair.
A Thai court declined to issue an injunction against her being sent back to her parents in Kuwait, from where she began her journey. A family trip to Kuwait apparently allowed her to evade Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on travel.
The immigration police chief, Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, said at a news conference at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, where Alqunun is staying, that he would meet with U.N. refugee officials to discuss allowing them to see her later Monday.
Surachate also said if Thai authorities decide not to send her back to Saudi Arabia, they would have to provide their reasons to Saudi authorities in order not to not affect the countries’ relations.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it was following Alqunun’s case and “trying to seek access from the Thai authorities” to meet with her to assess her need for international protection.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press that Thailand should give Alqunun back her passport and let her continue her journey to Australia.
“She has a valid Australian visa,” he said. “The key thing is she should not be sent back to Saudi Arabia, she should not be sent back into harm’s way.”
Some opposition figures in Australia were urging the government to support Alqunun’s efforts.
“I implore the government to do everything they can to help bring this young woman to Australia to give her the opportunity for freedom,” said Australian Sen. Sarah Hanson Young.
For runaway Saudi women, fleeing can be a matter of life and death, and they are almost always doing so to escape male relatives.
In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom triggered a firestorm online when she was stopped en route to Australia, where she planned to seek asylum. She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia and was not publicly heard from again, according to activists tracking her whereabouts.
Despite efforts by the Saudi government to curtail the scope of male guardianship laws, women who attempt to flee their families in Saudi Arabia have few good options inside the kingdom. They are often either pressured to reconcile with their families, are sent to shelters where their movement is restricted or face arrest for disobeying their legal guardian.
The AP reached Alqunun by telephone Sunday night in her hotel room and she spoke briefly, saying that she was tricked into giving up her passport upon arrival in Bangkok.
“Someone told me he would help me get a visa for Thailand, so I can go inside,” she said. “After that, he took my passport. After one hour, he came with five or four people and told me my family wants me. And they knew I had run away and should go back to Saudi Arabia.”
In various statements she’s made, she has identified the man who took her passport as a Kuwait Airways employee or a Saudi Embassy official. She said Saudi and Thai officials then told her she would be returned to Kuwait on Monday, where her father and brother are awaiting her.
While the Saudi Embassy in Thailand denies Saudi authorities are involved in attempts to stop Alqunun from traveling to Australia, the kingdom has in the past forcibly returned citizens home.
Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the crown prince who had fled Saudi Arabia and was living abroad, was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in a plot the kingdom said was aimed at forcing his return to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in Bangkok, Abdullah al-Shuaibi, was quoted in Saudi media as saying that Alqunun was stopped by Thai authorities because she did not appear to have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist. He said the Saudi Embassy has no authority to stop anyone at the airport and that such a decision would rest with Thai officials.
“She was stopped by airport authorities because she violated Thai laws,” he was quoted as saying in Sabq, a state-aligned Saudi news website. “The embassy is only monitoring the situation.”
A Saudi activist familiar with other cases of females who have run away said the women are often young, inexperienced and unprepared for the obstacles and risks involved in seeking asylum when they attempt to flee.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion, the activist said there have been instances where Saudi women runaways were stopped by authorities in Hong Kong or the Philippines en route to Australia or New Zealand. In some cases, Saudi authorities have been involved in forcing women to return to their families. In other cases, local authorities suspected the women of seeking asylum and deported them.