Thailand said Monday (Jan. 7) it won’t repatriate a Saudi teen who fled her family and was detained at Bangkok’s airport, from where she tweeted an account of barricading herself against officials trying to put her on a flight back to the Middle East.
Rahaf Mohammad al-Qunun, 18, arrived on Sunday at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport headed for Australia, where she planned to seek asylum. She told news agency AFP that on arrival, she was met by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials who confiscated her travel documents. Thai immigration minister Surachte Hakparn said al-Qunun was “running away from her family to avoid marriage” and that it was working with the Saudi embassy to send her back, calling it a “family problem.”
Al-Qunun took refuge in a hotel in the airport’s transit area from where she tweeted about her ordeal. She said she had fled her family because they were physically and pyschologically abusive to her, and that she feared for her life if she was sent back to Saudi Arabia, which strictly curtails women’s freedoms. Under the kingdom’s guardianship rules, a woman’s husband or male family members act as her custodian, and have ultimate say over what she can do—from schooling to marriage—and where she can go. Even as adults, women need permission from male guardians to travel out of the country.
“They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism,” she told The New York Times (paywall). “They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”
Thai officials tried on Monday morning to put al-Qunun on an 11:15am flight to Kuwait—she had traveled there with her family from Saudi Arabia—but she managed to avoid boarding after holing up in her hotel room. She said she wouldn’t come out until a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) arrived to consider her asylum request.
Al-Qunun’s tweet account of her ordeal mobilized support for her on and offline. People tracking the developments tweeted passengers at Bangkok’s airport to try and disrupt the Kuwait Airways flight on which officials were trying to put her and Thai lawyers filed an injunction to stop her deportation.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the Thai government is obliged to provide al-Qunun access to UNHCR under international law, as she faces the prospect of torture and other rights violations if she returns home. Soon after the announcement that a Bangkok court had declined to issue an injunction, Thailand announced it wouldn’t send Al-Qunun back.
The UNHCR said in a statement Thai authorities were allowing them to meet al-Qunun at the airport and that it would assess her need for refugee protection.
Al-Qunun’s father, who told Saudi officials she has psychiatric problems, is en route to Thailand, according to the Associated Press.
This is not the first time that a Saudi citizen has fled the country attempting to seek asylum in Australia. In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom also tried to escape from Kuwait to Australia, but was detained in the Philippines while in transit. Lasloom was ultimately deported to Saudi Arabia and her whereabouts are currently unknown.
This is the second time in less than a year that the story of a young woman trying to flee a restrictive family in the Middle East has drawn global attention. In March 2018, Sheikha Latifa, daughter of Dubai’s ruler, recorded a video citing the abuses she experienced by her family before attempting an escape. The yacht she was traveling on was intercepted by the Indian Coast Guard and United Arab Emirate officials in the Indian Ocean, and she was returned to her family, disappearing from sight for months.