#SaveRahaf: Activists' lightning campaign made Saudi teen's flight a global cause

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The UN is asking Australia to consider resettling a Saudi teenager who fled from her family and is now in Bangkok.
Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was denied entry into Thailand on Jan 6, 2019, as she fled from what she said was an abusive family. PHOTO: AFP/THAI IMMIGRATION OFFICE

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - On Sunday morning (Jan 6), a new Twitter account was created by an 18-year-old Saudi woman who was denied entry into Thailand as she fled from what she said was an abusive family.

The first message from Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, in Arabic, was posted at 3.20am Thai time from the transit area of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. It said: "I am the girl who escaped Kuwait to Thailand. My life is in real danger if I am forced to return to Saudi Arabia."

Within hours, a campaign sprung up on Twitter dubbed #SaveRahaf. Spread by a loose network of activists around the world, within 36 hours it prompted Thailand's government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

Ms Qunun was allowed to enter Thailand and on Tuesday was beginning the process of seeking asylum in a third country through the United Nations refugee agency.

"Everybody was watching. When social media works, this is what happens," said Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, of the international outcry.

Ms Qunun's family could not be reached to respond to her allegations of abuse. Reuters could not directly contact Ms Qunun, but spoke to several confidants who described how the dramatic campaign unfolded across the world.

After her initial tweet, Ms Qunun posted nearly non-stop for five hours, saying she had been abused and threatened by her family.

Halfway around the world, retweets by Saudi Twitter users were noticed by Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy in Montreal who began translating and retweeting Ms Qunun's Arabic tweets at 4am Thailand time, even though she was initially unsure if the account was authentic.

"(I was) doing my best to get attention to her because I could not live with myself if she was real and I ignored it," Ms Eltahawy told Reuters in an e-mail.


About two hours later - 6am on Sunday morning in Thailand, but mid-afternoon in Australia - a Sydney-based video journalist noticed and retweeted Ms Eltahawy's translated messages.

The journalist, Ms Sophie McNeill of Australia Broadcast Corp, began tweeting back to Ms Qunun, and later, the two began privately corresponding by direct message.

At 11am on Sunday in Thailand - about eight hours after Ms Qunun began tweeting - Human Rights Watch's Mr Robertson, who is based in Bangkok, also began tweeting about the case.

He also contacted Ms Qunun directly, and she replied.

"She said very clearly that she has suffered both physical and psychological abuse. She said she has made a decision to renounce Islam. And I knew once she said that, she is in serious trouble," Mr Robertson told Reuters.

Renouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of syariah, or Islamic law, though the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

By early Sunday afternoon, Mr Robertson had notified the UN refugee agency in Thailand and several foreign embassies about the unfolding case, and they began to contact Thai authorities.


At around the same time, journalist McNeill decided to fly to Thailand and try to meet Ms Qunun.

"I'd never spoken to her before," she told Reuters. "For me, it was so important that this was documented, and I wanted to be there and witness it."

While Ms McNeill boarded a flight from Sydney to Bangkok, Ms Qunun was holed up in an airport transit hotel and afraid she would be forced onto the next flight back to Kuwait. She continued tweeting and also corresponding with Mr Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

At around 5pm on Sunday, she was taken out of her room by Thai officials but later allowed to return.

"She filmed these two people talking to her," said Mr Robertson. "They said to her very clearly that they will put her on the Kuwait Airways flight KU 412 leaving (Monday) at 11.15 am."

By this time, global media outlets had picked up on the story and Thai immigration officials were confirming that Ms Qunun was to be expelled on Monday morning.

At about 1am on Monday morning, Ms Qunun posted a video of herself pushing a table to barricade her hotel room door.


Ms McNeill arrived in Thailand early on Monday and managed to join Ms Qunun in her hotel room.

"When it became clear that she wasn't going to leave, I decided it was important to stay and have someone documenting what was going on," Ms McNeill said.

Ms Qunun refused to open the door when various officials came to escort her to the Kuwait Airways flight.

"We were inside the room and there were numerous people coming to the door... There were several Arabic speakers who came and were using threatening language to try and force her back on the plane," Ms McNeill recalled.

The flight to Kuwait City left without Ms Qunun.

At 3.30pm on Monday, Thailand's immigration chief Surachate Hakparn held a press conference at the airport for dozens of Thai and international media representatives gathered in the transit area.

After a day of insisting that Ms Qunun must be sent back under Thai law, Mr Surachate said she would not be immediately expelled since she could be in danger and he would meet UN officials to discuss her case.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis arrived at the airport at about 5pm on Monday to meet Thai officials and Ms Qunun herself.

By about 7.30pm on Monday, Mr Surachate told reporters Ms Qunun would be allowed to enter Thailand and apply for asylum in a third country.

The UNHCR said on Tuesday that it would take time to process Ms Qunun's application, and its officials continued to interview her at an undisclosed location.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday denied on its Twitter account that its embassy in Thailand had asked for Ms Qunun to be extradited, although Mr Surachate said the previous day that the embassy had been in contact with Thai immigration before her arrival from Kuwait.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok declined to comment on Ms Qunun's case when contacted by Reuters on Monday and could not be reached on Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, the Thai immigration office released a video clip of its officials meeting Saudi diplomats to discuss the case.

"When she first arrived in Thailand, she opened a new site (account) and the followers reached about 45,000 within one day," a Saudi official speaking in Arabic through a translator told Thai officials in the video, referring to the Twitter account.

"I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than (taking) her passport," the official said.

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