An 18-year-old Saudi woman says authorities in Bangkok's main airport are holding her against her will and forcing her to return to her abusive family after she tried to escape over what she said were fears for her life.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun went viral after desperately tweeting her plight from Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand, where she says she was trying to get on a plane to Australia after breaking free from her family during a trip to Kuwait.
Her claims were backed up by Human Rights Watch, which said Qunun arrived at the Bangkok airport on the evening of Jan. 5 from Kuwait and was met by a representative of the Saudi Embassy. She claims her passport was seized and she was prevented from traveling further to Australia, where she said she has a valid visa.
“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 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.”
Qunun says she is 18 and that she had recently renounced Islam. Thailand’s immigration chief, Surachate Hakparn, told the Guardian that Qunun was escaping a marriage.
“She had no further documents such as return ticket or money,” he told the outlet. “She ran away from her family to avoid marriage and she is concerned she may be in trouble returning to Saudi Arabia. We sent officials to take care of her now.”
However, Qunun refuted that claim on Twitter, saying that her family was lying and that "this never happened." Instead, she has said that she has faced frequent physical and psychological abuse from her family.
Surachate, who did not return BuzzFeed News' request for comment, has characterized the woman's plight as a "family problem," telling the Guardian and several other news sites that Thai authorities have contacted the Saudi Embassy to "coordinate."
On Twitter, he asserted that "her visa was rejected even she still has her passport and is being detained. The immigration bureau cannot permit her to enter the country without plan to travel or any activities in Thailand, the accommodation and the return ticket that follow by the Thai law."
In another tweet, he explained that the Saudi embassy in Thailand instructed Thai officials to "send her back" because she entered the country without a guardian.
"If we allow her to entry she will be unsafe during her stay," he stated.
However, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, has been contradicting the Thai account, calling it "heartless."
"Hard to understand #Thai Immigration's heartless lack of concern for #Haraf al-Qunan. Commissioner 'Big Joke' says it's 'family problem' but if her father kills her, who takes responsibility for sending her into harm's way & ignoring her asylum request?" he tweeted Sunday, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that "Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own."
"Very straightforward," he added. He also pointed out that Qunun's father is a prominent Saudi government official.
On Monday afternoon, Robertson tweeted that Thai lawyers had filed an injunction with the Bangkok criminal court to prevent her deportation to Kuwait.
Starting a little after 3 a.m. Bangkok time Saturday, Qunun started frantically tweeting for the first time, chronicling her story and repeating that she is "very afraid," that her life is in danger, and that she is seeking refugee status. She shared photos of her passport with the caption "because I want you to know I'm real and exist" and snippets from her hotel room and the carpets of airport corridors.
"I'm rahaf mohmed, formally seeking a refugee status to any country that would protect me from getting harmed or killed due to leaving my religion and torture from my family," she wrote. " ... My life is on the line."
She is “formally asking the United Nation to help [her] seek a refugee status or asylum to any of these countries,” listing Canada, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom as possible destinations.
In one video, she can be heard talking to a person who identified themselves as “security," who allegedly prevented her from leaving a hotel room at the airport, where she says she has been staying. In a second clip, she says she has barricaded herself in that room and refuses to leave until she is able to see the United Nations' refugee agency.
The UNHCR did not respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for comment to see if they were involved in the situation.
In another tweet, she shared a screenshot from a person whom she said is her cousin, writing in broken English: "I’m being threatening by my cousin that I will be slaughter [sic]."
Qunun tweeted that she is being forced to take a Monday morning flight back to Kuwait.
According to HRW, Qunun fled while in Kuwait with her family, “which unlike Saudi Arabia, does not require a male relative’s approval for an adult woman to depart the country.”
She said that she was fleeing abuse from her family, including beatings and death threats from her male relatives, who also forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair.
"I had been threatened to be killed before and they aren’t afraid to threaten me in public," she said in one of her latest tweets on Jan. 6, more than 20 hours after her ordeal began. "Do you think this family is modern enough to set and negotiate my life’s choices? They consider me as property or their slave."
On Monday, she tweeted from her hotel room that she refused to board her flight, despite guards waiting outside her room.
"Help," she wrote, over and over.