Saudi Teen Seeking Asylum in Bangkok Airport Leaves Under ‘Protection’ of UN

Jan 7, 2019

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A Saudi teenager who fled to Thailand to allegedly escape an abusive family rose to international prominence on Monday after she barricaded herself in a hotel room inside the Bangkok airport when Thailand immigration officials threatened to deport her. She is now reportedly “under the care” of the UN refugee agency, according to the BBC.

Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq al-Qunun, 18, had been posting about her ordeal on Twitter, claiming that after she arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) on her way to Australia to seek asylum as a refugee on Saturday, officials from the Saudi embassy met her at the visa counter and confiscated her passport. Thai immigration officials claimed she was stopped because she didn’t meet the requirements for a visa in Thailand, but advocates say she wasn’t attempting to enter the country, only travel on to Australia.

Thai authorities then attempted to deport her back to her home country of Kuwait — where she says her abusive family lives.

Mohammed al-Qunun refused to board the flight home, and instead barricaded herself inside a hotel room in the airport. She said that because she renounced Islam, she feared for her life if she returned to Kuwait.

“My life is in danger,” the woman told Reuters. “My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”

The teenager stayed in her hotel room under the watch of officials until Monday. All the while she was tweeting that she wanted asylum and refugee status from the UN, and advocacy groups took notice. Human Rights Watch urged Thai officials not to deport the woman.

“Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will,” Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation, and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee.”

An unidentified employee (L) of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) talks with Thai immigration officers at the Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok on January 7, 2019. - The Saudi woman who made a desperate plea for asylum after arriving at Bangkok airport will not be forcibly deported, a Thai immigration official said on January 7. Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun told AFP she ran away from her family while travelling in Kuwait because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP) (Photo credit should read LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)
An unidentified employee (L) of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) talks with Thai immigration officers at the Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok on January 7, 2019. (Image by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images).

Then, Monday night local time, Surachate Hakparn, Thailand’s chief of immigration police said that Mohammed al-Qunun would be “allowed to stay,” in Thailand and that she “left the airport with the UNHCR,” the BBC reports.

Surachate also said he would meet with the Saudi diplomats on Tuesday to explain his decision. “She is now under the sovereignty of Thailand; no-one and no embassy can force her to go anywhere,” he said, adding that Thailand would “take care of her as best we can,” according to the BBC.

Mohammed al-Qunun had tweeted that her father, who is reportedly a senior Saudi Arabian government official, had arrived in Thailand, but that she felt safe with UNHCR’s protection.

Although there are more than 100,000 refugees in the country, Thailand is not an official signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, and therefore is not legally bound to offer asylum seekers protection.

“Thailand is a land of smiles,” said Surachate, the head of the nation’s immigration police.  “We will not send anyone to die.”

Featured image by Thai Immigration Bureau / AFP via Getty Images.

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