Published: Sat, January 12, 2019
Worldwide | By Isabel Fisher

Australia asked by United Nations to resettle Saudi Arabian teen

Australia asked by United Nations to resettle Saudi Arabian teen

Four days ago, 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun fled the watchful gaze of her family and boarded a flight to Thailand on a quest to seek asylum.

The father and brother of a young Saudi woman seeking asylum in Australia have arrived in Thailand, as the Morrison government said it would consider her request.

She was held in an air side hotel room while Thai officials said they would put her on the next flight back. She barricaded herself in the hotel room, until she was granted a temporary stay in Thailand under the protection of the UNHCR.

After public pressure, Alqunun got her passport back. But she reported that Saudi Arabian officials took her passport in Bangkok. But her bravery has shone a light on the appalling treatment of women in Saudi Arabia - one of the world's most oppressive regimes.

Qunun's case has drawn global attention to Saudi Arabia's strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male "guardian" to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

Thailand initially said it would deport her at the request of Saudi Arabian embassy officials, barring her from traveling on to Australia where al-Qunun said she had meant to claim asylum. Thai officials eventually returned her passport and allowed her to stay in the country, under the care of the United Nations, following public pressure.

"The position of two countries on this matter is the same - that the priority is to provide her safety". It declined to comment further.

Her father and brother arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but al-Qunun "refused to see" them, according to Thai immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn, who has been caught up in the global firestorm since al-Qunun's arrival. On Twitter, she had expressed fear of such a meeting.

After protracted negotiations overnight Monday, Ms Alqunun was placed under the protection of the UN. He said it "too early to tell" if she will be granted asylum or refugee status.

The latest incident comes against the backdrop of intense scrutiny on Saudi Arabia over the shocking murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi past year, which has renewed criticism of the kingdom's rights record. Khashoggi, who wrote critically of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in columns for The Washington Post, had been living in self-imposed exile before Saudi agents killed and dismembered him inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. She had meant to flee to Australia. Saudi activists say the kingdom, through its embassies overseas, has at times put pressure on border patrol agents in foreign countries to deport the women back to Saudi Arabia.

Qunun told Reuters via text and audio messages that she had fled Kuwait during a family visit there, and had planned to travel to Australia to seek asylum.

The representative in Australia of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said it was encouraging that Alqunun was able to highlight her situation using social media, and she hoped more Saudi women might act similarly.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who arrived in Bangkok, Thailand from Kuwait late Saturday after slipping away from her family, is also asking for help from the United States, Australia and United Kingdom. This is in no small part because Thailand offers visa-free entry to dozens of passports, making it an accessible first port of call for people who need an urgent escape from their homeland, refugee advocates told TIME.

Australia said on Wednesday it would consider taking in Alqunun after the UNHCR referred her case to Australia.

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