Posted On: Mon 07 Jan 2019 By THE GUARDIAN
An 18-year-old woman detained in Thailand after fleeing her family in Saudi Arabia and renouncing Islam will not be sent back to the Middle East against her wishes, Thai officials have said.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun barricaded herself inside a transit zone hotel room in Bangkok airport to prevent immigration officials putting her on a flight to Kuwait. She was denied entry to Thailand while en route to Australia, where she has a three-month multiple-entry tourist visa and said she was intending to seek asylum.
Qunun says she would be killed if she was returned to Saudi Arabia and has vowed not to leave the hotel room until she can see representatives from the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.
“I am Rahaf … I am in the hotel, I need a country to protect me as soon as possible. I am seeking asylum,” Qunun said in a video posted on social media.
Samut Prakan, the head of Thailand’s immigration bureau, said: “If deporting her would result in her death, we definitely wouldn’t want to do that.” Qunun would speak to UNHCR representatives later on Monday, he added.
Qunun said she was trying to escape from her family because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. She has appealed for help from Europe, the US, Canada and Australia. She fled Kuwait while her family was visiting the Gulf country.
“My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she said, adding that she was certain she would be imprisoned if sent back. “I’m sure, 100%, they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail,” she said.
A 20-year-old friend of Qunun, whom the Guardian has chosen not to name and who recently moved from Saudi Arabia to Australia, said the threats to her were real. “She’s ex-Muslim and has a very strict family. They’re using violence with her and she faced sexual harassment,” she said. “She received a threat from her cousin – he said he wants to see her blood, he wants to kill her.”
“If they didn’t kill her they couldn’t go [around in] public after this [Qunun renouncing the Muslim faith], so they have to do it,” the friend said. “It’s like: If you’re a man you should prove it. If they don’t kill her they can’t go outside and see other men.”
Qunun’s friend has lived in Australia for three months, and said she was seeking asylum there after being abused in Saudi Arabia. She said she had known Qunun for a year, after connecting with her online. “She’s an activist, she’s a feminist,” she said.
Georg Schmidt, Germany’s ambassador to Thailand, tweeted his support for Qunun, saying: “We share the great concern for Rahaf Mohammed and are in touch with the Thai side and the embassies of the countries she approached.”
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director, said there was no doubt Qunun needed refugee protection and that the UNHCR had to be given immediate access to the hotel.
“Rahaf faces grave harm if she is forced back to Saudi Arabia so she should be allowed to see UNHCR and apply for asylum, and Thailand should agree to follow whatever the UN refugee agency decides,” Robertson told the Guardian.
“She’s desperately fearful of her family, including her father who is a senior government official, and given Saudi Arabia’s long track record of looking the other way in so-called honour violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be discounted,” he said.
Saudi culture and guardianship policy requires women to have permission from a male relative to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment.
Qunun, from Ha’il, in north-west Saudi Arabia, said she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by Human Rights Watch.
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok said Qunun was being held for not having a return ticket, and that she still had her passport, a claim denied by Qunun.