A Saudi teenager who went viral after saying she had escaped her family and feared for her life has been escorted from Bangkok’s main airport, a significant development after Thai authorities originally said they would deport her back to her family in Kuwait.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, had barricaded herself inside an airport hotel room and took to Twitter to plead her case to the world before leaving the hotel with UN and Thai authorities.
Thai immigration police on Monday said they would not deport Qunun, and officials from the United Nations’s refugee agency were granted access to the teenager, who wrote on Twitter she would only speak to UN officials.
“We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back Ms. Al-qunun against her will and are extending protection for her," Giuseppe de Vicentiis, the UN agency's Thailand representative, said in a statement Tuesday, adding, “It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps."
Thai officials subsequently said the young woman would be admitted to Thailand for up to a week while UN refugee officials review her asylum case.
“If deporting her would result in her death, we definitely wouldn’t want to do that,” Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said at a press conference earlier.
Surachate added that “since Thailand is the 'Land of Smiles,' of course we won’t send someone to their death.”
In later remarks, Surachate confirmed she had left the airport, under the protection of the UN, and would be housed elsewhere until her asylum status was confirmed.
UN officials made contact with Qunun at around 6 p.m. Monday (local time) in Suvarnabhumi Airport to assess her need for international protection.
In the latest twist, Qunun's father, Mohammad al-Qunun, a senior government official, was reported to be in Bangkok. It remains unclear whether he will be granted access to his daughter, but she tweeted Monday about his apparent arrival.
Qunun began tweeting from the airport on Saturday, where she said she was trying to get on a plane to Australia after fleeing from her family during a trip to Kuwait.
Access to the account appears to be shared between Qunun and another so-far anonymous individual, who writes tweets when Qunun cannot.
Caroline Gluck, the UN regional representative for Asia, confirmed to BuzzFeed News there were a number of UN representatives meeting with Qunun and that they were currently interviewing her to assess her right to claim asylum.
“They will meet with her, hear her story, access her claims, make a decision as to whether her case means she can claim refugee status. If they rule against they will notify her, and she can appeal,” she said, declining to comment on the specifics of Qunun’s situation and whether she would be eligible to claim asylum.
Qunun landed in Suvarnabhumi Airport on Jan. 5, en route from Kuwait to Australia where she hoped to claim asylum.
She was able to leave because Kuwait, unlike Saudi Arabia, does not enforce strict guardianship rules that require a male family member’s permission to leave the country.
Qunun said she was fleeing her family and had faced abuse, beatings, and death threats. "My brothers and family and the Saudi Embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait," she told Reuters.
"My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things."
However, when she arrived in Bangkok’s main airport she said a Saudi official took her passport and she was unable to travel further, instead remaining inside her hotel room — and desperately tweeting for help.
While the UN has now been granted access, an injunction filed by Thai lawyers to prevent her deportation was dismissed Monday.
Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have a formal asylum process. However, under international law, the country cannot force someone back to a country where they could face torture or imprisonment.
Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Qunun’s reported rejection of Islam could place her at greater risk, in addition to the alleged threats from her family.
“Renouncing Islam is technically punishable by the death penalty in Saudi Arabia,” Coogle said. “Now, I don’t think we have ever had evidence of them carrying out such a sentence but they do sentence people for apostasy. It is a very serious risk [that] in addition to that if the hardline clerical establishments get riled up about the authorities could feel a compulsion to act.”
Speaking to BuzzFeed News from Jordan, Coogle said Qunun faces potential violence from her family and from the state, plus criminal liability.
The 18-year-old had repeatedly addressed the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia on Twitter, asking them to take her in as a refugee.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the Australian government said it was monitoring her case closely, calling her claims that she may be hurt if she returned to her home country "deeply concerning."
"The Australian Embassy in Thailand has made representations to both the Thai Government and the Bangkok office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to seek assurances that Ms Al-Qunun can access the UNHCR’s refugee status determination process in Thailand," a spokesperson with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.
At a press conference, Australian immigration leaders said that while they could not comment on specific cases, they were aware of Qunun's highly-troubling claims and the waves her story has been making across international media.
Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has called on the Liberal Government to issue emergency travel documents to a young Saudi woman trapped in Bangkok, so she can travel safely and urgently to Australia where she has a visa.
“Time is of the essence. Rahaf could be sent back to Saudi Arabia within hours without our intervention," she said. "The Liberal Government must act swiftly and bring her here to safety."
Women in Saudi Arabia endure a number of restrictions on their freedoms, and Qunun’s case appears similar to that of Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, who was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia from the Philippines in 2017. It is unclear what subsequently happened to her when she returned to Saudi Arabia.