Hong Kong - A young Saudi woman detained in a Thailand airport after fleeing her family in fear for her life will not be forcibly deported, Thailand immigration authorities said, citing concerns for her safety.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, was on holiday with her family in Kuwait when she fled to Bangkok, hoping to make it onward to Australia to seek asylum. Thai authorities have detained her at an airport hotel in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, and had initially planned to send her back to Kuwait on a flight departing at 11:15 a.m. local time.
Alqunun, however, barricaded herself in her room, and demanded to meet with the UN's refugee agency, missing the flight.
Surachet Hakparn, head of Thailand's immigration bureau, said Monday afternoon that Thailand will not send her back immediately, and will coordinate with the UN's refugee agency.
"If deporting her would result in her death, we definitely wouldn't want to do that," he said.
Several phone calls and messages to Alqunun were not immediately returned.
Alqunun launched a social media campaign late Saturday on Twitter chronicling her detention and even posting a copy of her passport to prove her identity. The young woman, who is from the city of Hail, in northwest Saudi Arabia, had suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of family members including her brother, according to a 19-year old woman who said she and Alqanun had been friends for several years.
The woman said Alqunun, at one point, was locked up by her family for months, as punishment for cutting her hair.
The woman, who lives in Sweden and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she had also fled Saudi Arabia two years ago because she was being abused by her family. As Alqunun planned her escape, she had been in contact, the woman said.
"Her friends believe her life is in danger. We don't know what the Saudi embassy will do. We hope that the embassy from another country can help her," the woman said.
On Monday morning, hours before her scheduled deportation, Alqunun posted several videos of herself formally requesting asylum and stating she will not leave her room without a meeting with UNHCR, the Refugee Agency.
"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 U.N. refugee agency decides," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who has been in touch with Alqunun.
"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 ignored," he added.
A spokeswoman for UNHCR, Caroline Gluck, said the agency has been "following developments closely and has been trying to seek access from the Thai authorities" to meet with Alqunun and "to assess her need for international protection."
"UNHCR consistently advocates that refugees and asylum seekers - having been confirmed or claimed to be in need of international protection - cannot be returned to their countries of origin according to the principle of non-refoulement, which prevents states from expelling or returning persons to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened," she added.
Thai lawyers, working pro-bono, on Monday filed an injunction against deporting the young woman, and charged that she had been wrongfully detained. The injunction, however, was dismissed by a criminal court in Bangkok.
Hakparn, head of the immigration bureau, had told reporters Sunday that Alqunun tried to enter Thailand, but did not have the appropriate documents to get a visa on arrival, and so had to be repatriated. Alqunun, however, said she never tried to enter Thailand and had her passport taken from her as soon as she landed.
In brief comments to reporters on Monday, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, Thailand's defence minister, said that Thailand is unable to send Alqunun to a third country.
"We don't have the power," he said. "This is about Thailand and Saudi [Arabia] . . . So far, the Saudi embassy has been involved to take care of this, but we have to detain her because she entered Thailand illegally."
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugees Convention, but does host a large number of refugees within its borders. It has signed on to a number of international human rights treaties that require it not to deport people to places where they are at serious risk of harm and abuse.
In a statement posted on the Twitter page of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok said Alqunun was stopped by authorities in Thailand for "violating the laws" and that the embassy has been in "constant contact" with her family.
The dramatic scenes and Alqunun's pleas for help echoed those of other women who have tried to flee abusive or restrictive conditions for them in Saudi Arabia. In 2017, Dina Lasloom, a 24-year old Saudi woman, was similarly attempting to seek asylum in Australia when she was stopped in an airport in Manila. She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia, and has not been publicly heard from since.
In Saudi Arabia, women need a male relative's approval to depart the country - restrictions that last from birth until death. Alqunun could also face possible criminal charges in Saudi Arabia for "parental disobedience" and for harming the reputation of Saudi Arabia by publicly appealing for help. Human Rights Watch in a statement pointed out that this system of guardianship makes it extremely difficult for victims of violence to seek protection or legal recourse for domestic abuse.
Thailand has also recently detained a former Bahrain soccer player, 25-year old Hakeem al-Araibi, who had been granted refugee status in Australia after speaking out against a powerful Bahraini official. He was detained Nov. 27 after arriving in Bangkok for his honeymoon. He remains in custody as he awaits a court decision on Bahrain's extradition request.
The Washington Post