Australia will formally consider asylum claim of Saudi woman in Bangkok

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has been declared a refugee by the UN – AFP

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Australia has said it will formally consider the asylum claim of a Saudi woman fleeing her family after the United Nations assessed her case and ruled that she was a genuine refugee. 

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, took to Twitter on Monday to plead for her life after she was stopped by Saudi officials and Thai immigration officers during a transit through Bangkok airport while on route to Australia, where she wanted to start an asylum process.  

Her passport was confiscated and she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room to avoid being deported on a flight to Kuwait. The teenager then gripped the world with her desperate cries for help  via social media. 

She claimed she was escaping from her family who had subjected her to physical and psychological abuse and that she feared she would be killed if she was sent home to Saudi Arabia. Her family have not commented on the allegations, although her father travelled to Bangkok to try to speak to her. 

Ms al-Qunun’s panicked efforts to escape repatriation generated a global media frenzy and prompted a U-turn by the Thai authorities who allowed her to be taken into the protection of the United Nations office for Refugees (UNHCR). 

The UNHCR initially said it could take days to process her case, but had decided by Wednesday morning that she was a genuine refugee and referred her to Australia for resettlement. 

The decision was made public by Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, which said it would consider the referral from the UN in the usual way. 

In a Twitter update on Wednesday, Ms al-Qunun thanked her 107,000 followers for their “support in my difficult psychological situation” and said that she had “regained my strength” after a dramatic few days. 

Her extraordinary use of social media to highlight her plight had managed to spark an international outcry and #SaveRahaf campaign within hours of her detention, attracting human rights activists and diplomats to advocate on her behalf. 

“Everybody was watching. When social media works, this is what happens,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told Reuters. 

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok has not publicly commented on Ms al-Qunun’s case since it initially claimed on Monday that she had tried to enter Thailand without the right papers, a charge which she denied. 

On Tuesday, the Thai immigration office released a video clip of its officials meeting Saudi diplomats to discuss the case. 

“When she first arrived in Thailand, she opened a new site (account) and the followers reached about 45,000 within one day,” a Saudi official speaking in Arabic through a translator tells Thai officials in the video. 

“I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than (taking) her passport,” the official said.    

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