A Saudi teenager who says she is fleeing an abusive family was allowed to enter Thailand Monday to file paperwork with the United Nations refugee agency, after barricading herself in an airport hotel room overnight to prevent forced repatriation and pleading for help on social media.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, and UNHCR representatives showed up at a press conference at Suvarnabhumi Airport late Monday as Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, chief of Thailand’s immigration bureau, announced that she had been admitted to Thailand.
“She wants to stay in Thailand for a while, seeking UNHCR refugee status before going to a third country,” said Surachate. “She will get the status in five days’ time, according to UNHCR colleagues.”
Surachate, who had earlier called the matter a family issue, told reporters Monday evening that Thailand was prepared to assist her after learning that her life was in peril.
“But when we learned that she may face death going back home, Thailand embraced her, working with the foreign ministry and the U.N. Today, I allowed her to enter Thailand and am ready to hand her over to UNHCR for refugee status processing,” he said.
“We don’t detain her now and have transferred her to the UNHCR ... she is protected under Thai law. No one can hurt her or can force her to do things against her will,” Surachate said,
Al-Qunun was taken to a hotel near the UNHCR office in Bangkok after the press conference, local media reported.
On Sunday, the immigration chief and the young Saudi woman gave different accounts of what happened after she landed in Thailand.
Al-Qunun told BenarNews she arrived at the airport for transit to Australia, where she wants to seek asylum, and she had both a ticket and visa to continue the journey. She said she was pulled aside by Saudi embassy officials who confiscated her passport and confined her to a hotel room.
Surachate said she tried to enter Thailand but was barred from doing so because she lacked proper documents and travel arrangements, so authorities planned to deport her to Kuwait, where her family is reportedly based, on a flight departing at 11:15 a.m. Monday.
Al-Qunun barricaded the door of a room at Miracle Transit Hotel to avoid being sent back, pictures released to the media show.
Late Monday, Surachate said the young woman’s father was arriving in Thailand and would ask if she wanted to see him.
“My father just arrived, as I heard, which worried and scared me a lot. And I want to go to another country that I seek asylum in,” al-Qunun tweeted after the conference ended.
“But at least I feel safe now under UNHCR protection with the agreement with Thailand’s authorities. And I finally got my passport.”
On Sunday al-Qunun said she was in fear if returned to her family.
“My family will kill me,” the 18-year-old told BenarNews during a brief interview by telephone and WhatsApp messages. “My father is very angry because I ran away from them. I ran away because they treated me badly.”
International human rights organizations spoke out on her behalf during the airport standoff, saying she could face violence in the conservative kingdom where women’s dress and movements are strictly regulated.
“We’re concerned that … because she has asserted her independence, because she has done this escape, because she has unmasked herself, she’s taken off her hijab, she’s also said that she wants to renounce Islam, that she could face very, very serious consequences if she’s returned to Saudi Arabia,” said Phil Robertson, a deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“If she is sent back to Saudi Arabia, to her family, they will have essential impunity to abuse her, to inflict ‘honor-related’ violence against her, and Saudi Arabia has a very poor track record in investigating and prosecuting these kind of cases,” Robertson told Agence France-Presse.