Saudi teen fleeing family now 'in a secure place', UN refugee agency says

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Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, says she is at risk of imprisonment and even death at the hands of the Saudi authorities and her family

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun said she was stopped when she arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport (Reuters)
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Monday 7 January 2019 20:30 UTC
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Thailand has halted plans to deport an 18-year-old Saudi woman back to the Gulf, the country's immigration chief said on Monday, after she barricaded herself inside her airport hotel room and refused to be returned to her family. 

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is now "in a secure place", a spokeswoman for the United Nation's refugee agency (UNHCR) said later in the day, without going into further detail.

“She’s now in a secure place, out of the hotel,” Cecile Pouilly, senior communications officer for UNHCR, told UN News.

“She’s now in a state of emotional distress after all she’s gone through and she needs to be given a bit of breathing space, but in the coming days, we will keep on meeting with her to try to assess her protection needs,” Pouilly said.

Qunun arrived at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport in transit from Kuwait on Saturday, when she was denied entry by Thai immigration officials.

On Monday, officials admitted having contact with the Saudi embassy before her arrival, after previously denying it.

"The Saudi Arabia embassy contacted the immigration police ... and said that the girl had run away from her parents and they fear for her safety," the chief of Thailand's immigration police, Surachate Hakparn, told reporters. 

"We acknowledged this and checked her paperwork. She had a passport but no return ticket, no travel plan, and no destination or hotel reservation in Thailand ... so per airport security procedures, immigration denied her entry."

She flew to Thailand from Kuwait, leaving behind her family while they travelled and saying she feared they would kill her. 

The Saudi foreign ministry denied her allegations that its embassy had confiscated her passport, saying in a tweet she was stopped at the airport for violating Thai immigration laws.

Qunun posted a video on Twitter on Monday of her barricading her hotel door with a table and a mattress.

Hakparn said Thailand would be coordinating with UNHCR in discussions about Qunun's plans.

Qunun told the Reuters news agency she fled Kuwait while her family was visiting the Gulf country and had planned to travel from Thailand to Australia to seek asylum. Qunun has a three-month multiple-entry tourist visa for Australia, according to the Guardian newspaper.

The Saudi teen said she was detained after leaving her plane in Bangkok and told she would be sent back to Kuwait.

"My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait," Qunun said by text and voice message from the hotel late on Sunday.

"They will kill me," she said. "My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things."

Asked why she was seeking refuge in Australia, she said: "Physical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months. They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education.

"They won't let me drive or travel. I am oppressed. I love life and work and I am very ambitious but my family is preventing me from living."

Worldwide support

On social media human rights activists have called for deportation to be halted, using the hashtag #SaveRahaf. 

Her family could not immediately be reached for comment. In her initial social media pleas, Qunun said her family was powerful in Saudi society but she did not identify them.

Saudi Arabia's guardianship system requires women to have permission from a male relative to work, travel, marry and even get medical treatment in some cases.

Thai immigration authorities denied Qunun's allegations they were acting at the behest of the Saudi government, saying she was refused entry because she did not have the proper documents for a visa on arrival.

The Saudi foreign ministry said on its official Twitter account: "She was stopped by the airport authorities for violating the laws. Her passport was not impounded by the Saudi embassy."

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thailand should not send Qunun back to her family because she says she faces danger.

"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," Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Qunun said she had obtained an Australian visa and booked a flight. She said she planned to spend a few days in Thailand so she would not spark suspicion when she left Kuwait.

"When I landed at the airport, someone came and said he would process the [Thai] visa but he took my passport. He came back with what seemed to be airport security and said that my parents objected and said I must return to Saudi Arabia via Kuwait Airways," she said.

She said she believed she was stopped after her family appealed to Kuwait Airways. A spokesman for Kuwait Airways said he had no information about the case.

Thai immigration chief Hakparn earlier said he had had no contact with Saudi officials or Thailand's foreign minister before Qunun's arrival. He said she was denied entry because she did not have a paid return ticket or hotel reservation.

"She was over-exaggerating... She fled her family from Saudi Arabia and arrived in Thailand but she didn't have necessary documents to enter. Thai immigration had to deny her entry," he said, describing such cases as standard procedure.

Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was stopped in transit in the Philippines in April 2017 when she attempted to flee her family.

An airline security official told activists that Lasloom was heard "screaming and begging for help" as men carried her "with duct tape on her mouth, feet and hands" at the airport.