The United Nations has said an 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family is a legitimate refugee and has asked Australia to resettle her, Canberra said on Wednesday, as the Twitter-led campaign to grant her asylum edged towards 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 embassy officials, barring her from travelling on to Australia where Qunun said she had intended to claim asylum.
But armed with a phone, she barricaded herself into an airside hotel room and fought back — live-tweeting her fears of deportation in a campaign that swiftly galvanised international support and prompted a sharp U-turn by Thai officials.
Qunun is now in the care of the UN’s refugee agency in Bangkok, which is processing her case.
“The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” Australia’s 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 Qunun’s request will be accepted.
“If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa,” health minister Greg Hunt had said before the UN determination was public.
Tweet to victory
Qunun’s desperate tweets ricocheted across social media with the #SaveRahaf hashtag 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 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 Qunun “refused to see” them, according to Thai immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn, who has been caught up in the international firestorm since Qunun’s arrival.
The father met with the UNHCR on Wednesday morning and spoke with Surachate in the afternoon for an hour, the immigration head said at a press conference.
He denied abusing or threatening her, and told Surachate that Qunun had “freedom”.
“He wants to take his daughter back home, her mother fell sick after hearing her daughter ran away,” Surachate said.
Qunun’s father told the UNHCR about his objections to her fleeing and would remain in Thailand until a decision was made, Surachate said, adding that this might come on Thursday.
A UNHCR representative told AFP “the process is still ongoing”.
On Sunday Qunun told AFP her family was “abusive” and once locked her in a room for six months just for cutting her hair.
Fleeing them while travelling in Kuwait throws her into conflict with Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” system, which allows male family members to make decisions on behalf of female relatives, she said.
That makes it “100 per cent” certain she would be killed by her family if she was returned to Saudi, she added.
Footage released by Thai immigration shows Abdullah al-Shouaibi, Saudi embassy charge d’affaires in Bangkok, complaining in a meeting on Tuesday with Surachate that Qunun’s smartphone should have been confiscated.
“When she arrived, she open a new (Twitter) account and her followers grew to 45,000 in one day,” he said in Arabic.
“It would have been better if they had confiscated her mobile instead of her passport.”
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok said it “did not demand her deportation” and that the case was “a family affair”.
By Wednesday afternoon, Qunun had returned to posting updates on Twitter, promising to “broadcast continuously to assure” the public of her condition.
“I have prepared my strength and will continue my journey to reach a safe country,” she tweeted in Arabic.
“Don’t let anyone break your wings, you’re free,” she tweeted in English adding, “fight and get your RIGHTS!”
Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns Samah Hadid said Rahaf’s story “became an inspiration to millions worldwide”, but added that Thailand has often “breached their responsibilities” to asylum seekers and refugees.
“The humanity shown to Rahaf must not be a one-off,” said Hadid.
Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has come under fire since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul last year.