SYDNEY/BANGKOK (AFP) - The United Nations has found that a teenager who fled Saudi Arabia to Thailand is a legitimate refugee and has asked Australia to take her in, officials in Canberra said Wednesday (Jan 9).
“The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” the Department of Home Affairs said in a statement.
The decision marks a significant victory for the 18-year-old, who is currently in Bangkok where she says Thai authorities attempted to block her from travelling to Australia to claim asylum.
The home affairs department said it will “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.
The young woman has said she was fleeing from Saudi Arabia to Australia but was stopped en route by Thai and Saudi officials.
Her plight shot to public attention when she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to avoid deportation and shared dozens of fearful but defiant messages online insisting on her right to asylum.
Thai authorities initially said Qunun would be sent back, but they abruptly changed course as the story pinballed across social media.
Saudi Arabia has some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women, including a guardianship system that allows male family members to make decisions on behalf of female relatives.
The kingdom’s human rights record has been under heavy scrutiny since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s embassy in Istanbul last year.
Even Australia’s hardline home affairs minister, a former policeman and staunch supporter of anti-immigration policies, expressed sympathy. “There is no special treatment in this case,” Peter Dutton said Wednesday.
But, he added, “nobody wants to see a young girl in distress and she has obviously now found a safe haven in Thailand”.
In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch had told reporters the process looking into Qunun’s asylum claim had started and could take several days.
Thailand is not a signatory to a UN convention on refugees, and asylum seekers are typically deported or wait years to be resettled in third countries.
The UNHCR insists anyone with an asylum claim should not be sent back to the country.
In a short press release distributed to media outside its embassy in Bangkok Tuesday, the Saudi government said it had not demanded her deportation.
The case was a “family affair”, but under the “care and attention” of the embassy, it added.
In an earlier and separate explanation released on Twitter, the embassy also denied sending officials to Suvarnabhumi airport to meet Qunun as she arrived or impounding her passport – as she alleged.
It also said the embassy had made contact with her father, a senior regional government official in the kingdom, “to inform him on her situation”.
Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters that Qunun’s father and brother had arrived in Thailand on Tuesday.
Surachate said he would talk to the UN refugee agency about a potential meeting between the family members.
“Rahaf is not a political asylum case,” he insisted. “It is not political at all.” The Saudi government “agrees that there should be a priority on Rahaf’s safety”, he added.
The immigration police released photos of Surachate and his team sitting down with Saudi embassy charge d’affaires Abdulilah al-Shouaibi.
Video footage posted on Twitter by a Saudi human rights activists apparently shows the Saudi official complaining that Thai authorities should have confiscated Qunun’s smartphone.
“When she arrived, she opened 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.” AFP was unable to contact Saudi authorities for comment on the footage.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson, in contact with Qunun since she started live-tweeting her ordeal, said her father and brother were “the two male relatives (Qunun) most fears” and could “physically harm her in an effort to compel her to return”.
“She’s an adult woman who has escaped Saudi Arabia’s repressive and discriminatory ‘guardianship’ laws and these men must recognise the rules have changed,” he said.
It was “solely her decision” whether or not to meet them, he added.
Qunun has said she believes she will be imprisoned or killed if sent back, and that her family is so strict they once locked her in a room for six months for cutting her hair.