LONDON — When 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun, who last week arrived in Canada after being granted asylum, was still barricaded inside a hotel room in Bangkok fighting deportation back to Saudi Arabia and her allegedly abusive family, a Saudi official bemoaned the worldwide attention her case had received.
The Saudi Embassy in Thailand, said Saudi charges d’affaires Abdullah al-Shuaibi, should have “confiscated her cellphone instead of her passport, because Twitter changed everything."
Twitter did change everything for Qunun, who live-tweeted her ultimately successful attempt to prevent deportation and arrive in Canada as a refugee.
“I think that the number of women fleeing from the Saudi administration and abuse will increase, especially since there is no system to stop them,” Qunun told Australian broadcaster ABC in her first interview after arriving in Canada.
“I hope my story encourages other women to be brave and free.”
But Qunun’s tweets were high-risk, fully identifying herself before the world and therefore Saudi authorities who would not let her escape a second time if she had been deported.
Many people fleeing violence and persecution use social media to bring awareness to their stories, but most if not all fail to get the attention that Qunun received. Social media researchers, migration experts, and human rights activists told BuzzFeed News that what’s unusual about Qunun’s case is not that she used Twitter to gain asylum, it’s that she was successful. Many others aren’t nearly so lucky.
Humanitarians say Qunun’s actions might encourage more people fleeing violence to get to safety by tweeting, regardless of the dangerous consequences.
Qunun started tweeting on Jan. 5, with just 24 followers. The Saudi Embassy was trying to deport her from Thailand — where she had fled, hoping to fly on to Australia and claim asylum there — back to her abusive family, she said. “I'm afraid. My family will kill me.”
That tweet caught the eye of Egyptian American feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, who translated Qunun’s cries for help from Arabic into English and brought them to the attention of her 300,000 followers. (BuzzFeed News contacted Eltahawy for comment but she did not respond by the time of publication.) The hashtag #SaveRahaf took off as Qunun barricaded herself inside a hotel room to prevent officials from putting her on a plane. Days later, officials from the UNHCR (the United Nations agency for refugees) had reached her and assessed her asylum claim. On Saturday, she was welcomed by Canada’s foreign minister at Toronto Pearson International Airport after her claim was successful.
In the space of just a week, Qunun — and the three women who jointly ran the Twitter account — had gained 175,000 followers and used that platform to get her to safety. BuzzFeed News contacted one of the three women, but she declined to comment for this piece.
Another refugee who successfully used Twitter to raise international awareness about his plight is Hassan al-Kontar, although his story played out over months rather than days. Kontar, originally from Syria, caught the world media’s attention by live-tweeting his attempts to escape the departure lounge in Kuala Lumpur International Airport where he had become stranded. Like Qunun, Kontar ended up in Canada.
“What we have in common is using social media,” he told BuzzFeed News from his new home in Whistler, saying he’d been in touch with Qunun in the past week.
Kontar said his situation was also a matter of life and death. “The authorities would arrest me, they would have contacted the Syrian Embassy, they will arrange for a ticket for me and they will deport me to Syria,” he said. “Yes, of course it was [life and death] for me.”
He said that as repressive states tried to crack down on dissidents through their “virtual armies,” they were fighting against “hundreds and thousands” of girls like Qunun who could glimpse freedom through social networks like Twitter. “They think they can control it, but they can’t, and not in the way that they are trying to handle it.”
But Kontar and Qunun are outliers. There are countless others in similar situations whose stories did not end so happily.
Melissa Fleming, chief communications officer at the UNHCR, said refugees tweeting their stories isn’t anything new: “The use of social media among refugees is huge; the successful use of it is not that big.”
She told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview from Geneva that “ever since refugees have been able to access social media, mobile phones, and [an internet] connection, they have seen the possibility of social media as either a way to connect with the outside world if they are trapped in a camp, or a way to navigate.”
What elevated Qunun’s case — and in a similar way Kontar’s before hers — was that, according to Fleming, “it had all the elements of Hollywood drama: escape, danger, transformation, women’s issues. Her case hit on a number of themes that are really, in a way, trending now too.”
The story of Qunun’s escape, conveyed live to thousands, was incredibly visual. She tweeted numerous videos and images, showing the hotel room’s furniture piled against the door, that allowed followers a sense of real-time investment in the drama. Similarly, Kontar shared the daily realities of living in the airport, showing people what he ate and where he lived and slept.
The strategies used by Kontar and then Qunun, while dramatic and ultimately successful, were incredibly high-risk — especially because they put their faces front and center. One of the first images Qunun sent out was a Snapchat filtered photograph, while later shots showed her passports and documents.
Qunun’s decision to identify herself so clearly alerted humanitarians that, in the words of Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Phil Robertson, she “was not going to give an inch.”
“Her face is everywhere now,” Fleming added. “Does that have implications for her future safety?”
It already has. On Jan. 11, Qunun’s Twitter account suddenly disappeared. Her followers and advocates went into crisis mode, tweeting for help believing she was in danger. Eventually, one of the women involved in tweeting on her behalf sent out a message explaining Qunun had received death threats and had deactivated her account as a result.
But while putting her photograph online painted a bigger target on her back, Qunun may have been aware of other Saudi women who did not succeed in escaping.
Take Dina Ali Lasloom. She was 24 when she tried to seek asylum in Australia after making it to the Philippines in 2017. She recorded a video, with the help of a Canadian tourist, in which she described her situation but kept her face obscured. Other videos emerged, and at the time the case gathered a huge amount of attention on social media, including the hashtag #SaveDinaAli. But she was caught and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia. She has not been seen since.
Eugenia Siapera, who researches social media and journalism at Dublin City University, said Qunun caught the eye of the right people online. While traditional media outlets were once the gatekeepers, that role has now been occupied by influencers like Eltahawy with hundreds of thousands of followers.
“You have to go through them,” she said.
Realistically, Siapera said, “if someone sees an email and a tweet by someone with a foreign-sounding name, with bad English, with no high-profile followers, they are not going to pay attention to it.”
If your tweets aren’t picked up by the right people — like in the case of Lasloom — then you might be returned to home country and face the consequences.
Seeking asylum in the way Qunun did is “a double-edged sword. It’s high risk and high reward,” said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“This idea that women are going to take these reckless steps and not be successful is really scary to me,” Coogle said. Rather than ending up in Canada, these women could get stuck in countries neighboring Saudi Arabia, “where they are just going to arrest you and send you back without any semblance of a deportation or due process or anything like that.”
“They are just going to put you in a car and put you [back] over the border,” he said.
Other factors, like the current political antipathy toward Saudi Arabia and Qunun’s ability to tap into a young audience, undoubtedly helped her — but the increased publicity also made her a bigger target for Saudi authorities.
Coogle related the case of Saudi campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, who fought successfully for women to be legally allowed to drive but was detained shortly before the first licenses were awarded. Hathloul remains in prison — Saudi authorities have never given a formal reason since her detention in May last year, and she has been denied access to a lawyer.
When she was first detained, it wasn’t her illegal driving that angered officials, Coogle said over the phone from Jordan, it was her Twitter account, which had hundreds of thousands of followers. “They cared about the Twitter, they cared that she was live-tweeting it.”
“What they really hated was [her] Twitter,” he said. Hathloul’s last tweet was sent March 9, 2018.
As a result, Coogle said, Qunun’s social media tactic wasn’t necessarily a cause for celebration. The idea that “it worked for this woman, so I’ll start a Twitter account and try to flee” is incredibly dangerous, and went counter to the numerous cases of women who had successfully fled Saudi Arabia over the years. “You never heard about them,” Coogle said. “Why? Because they had a good plan.”
“The reason we know about these cases [like Qunun’s] is because they got fucked up.”
Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University, Doha, called Qunun’s actions “extremely dangerous.”
“Saudi Arabia are fiercely defensive about their reputation and international image, especially given recent high-profile incidents that have tarnished its reputation,” he said. “While the platform allowed Rahaf to get her message out, it also allowed her to be abused and threatened with death.”
Jones said while Twitter could provide additional, if not comprehensive, protection against trolling through verification, it didn’t do this for Qunun. “Twitter's record on controlling Saudi-based abuse is so woefully lacking as to warrant suspicion,” he said.
Ultimately, whatever the warnings from humanitarians and social media experts, they all agreed there would be more cases like Qunun’s and Kontar’s.
As Kontar said, “It is not going to stop. It is just the start.” ●