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Saudi teen granted stay in Thailand

A Saudi teenager who flew to Thailand to escape her family in Kuwait will be allowed to stay in the country for now, Thai officials said.

Posted: Jan 8, 2019 8:57 AM
Updated: Jan 8, 2019 9:04 AM

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family and barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room, saying she feared death at their hands if returned to them, has been released from the airport and is now under the protection of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Thai authorities.

The UNHCR's representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vincentiis, told CNN on Tuesday that it was still assessing Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun's protection claims and it could take "several days to process the case and determine next steps."

Al-Qunun's case sparked headlines around the world following a global social media campaign by her supporters and human rights advocates, urging Thai authorities not to deport her back to her family, who were in Kuwait. Her story has also put Saudi Arabia's restrictive guardianship laws, which govern many aspects of women's lives, back under international scrutiny.

Al-Qunun, who identified herself on an unverified Twitter account, arrived at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on Saturday after a flight from Kuwait. She told CNN she originally intended to fly on to Australia but decided to enter Thailand instead.

Upon landing, she said she was held by Saudi embassy officials and had her passport confiscated. She said the Saudis tried to make her sign a piece of paper, and that when she refused and appealed to Thai immigration officials, she was escorted to a transit hotel.

"I cannot flee the airport, I've tried but couldn't. There's a security guard watching me," she said in a video posted on Twitter before she left the hotel.

Thai officials had initially said Al-Qunun would be deported to Kuwait but changed their minds several hours later following the global outcry.

After meeting with Thai immigration officials and UNHCR representatives on Monday evening, Al-Qunun left the airport hotel with UNHCR staff, Thai immigration officials told CNN.

"She is now under the sovereignty of Thailand. No one and no embassy can force her to go anywhere. We will protect her as best as we can," Thailand's immigration police chief, Surachet Hakpal, said Monday. "Since she escaped trouble to seek our help, we are the Land of Smiles, we will not send anyone to their death. We won't do that, we will adhere to the human rights principles under the rule of law."

CNN has not been able to reach Al-Qunun's family for a response to the abuse allegations.

Saudi Arabia's draconian treatment of women

Saudi Arabia, which adheres to some of the world's strictest interpretations of Sunni Islam, has long prevented women from taking on a larger role in society. Male guardians have the power to make a range of critical decisions on a woman's behalf, including whether they can marry, divorce, get a job, have elective surgery or travel.

"Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "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."

In 2017, young Saudi woman Dina Ali Lasloom attempted to flee her family and claim asylum in Australia before she was stopped by Philippine immigration officials while in transit at Manila airport. Lasloom had pleaded with authorities not to deport her back to her family because she feared they would kill her.

"Many women simply can't get out," one Saudi campaigner told CNN in 2017. "They do not have the means and they need the permission of their guardian to leave their house or to leave the country."

It appears that Al-Qunun was able to escape her family and travel to Thailand while her parents were in Kuwait.

In a statement, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Al-Qunun "does not have a return reservation or a tourist program, which requires deportation by the Thai authorities."

The ministry added that Saudi consular officials were in "constant contact with her family" and she would be "deported to the State of Kuwait where her family live." It denied allegations that her passport had been seized.

Thailand's history of deporting asylum seekers

Before being allowed to leave the airport, Al-Qunun had posted photographs of herself and her passport, and said she was seeking refugee status from "any country that would protect me from getting harmed or killed due to leaving my religion and torture from my family."

She had also posted videos on social media where she can be heard refusing entry to people knocking on the door of her hotel room at the airport.

"They're trying to get me to come out so they can take me away. I'm trying to contact the UN," she told the camera. A mattress, desk and chair were seen standing against the chain-locked door.

Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy director for Asia, based in Bangkok, said no country should interfere with an 18-year-old's right to travel where she wished. Robertson told CNN that Al-Qunun "fears for her life if she is returned to Saudi Arabia and her family, who have physically and psychologically abused her for daring to assert her independence."

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, though it has signed a number of treaties that require it not to send people to places where they may be at risk of harm.

Despite this, Thailand's track record of respecting asylum rights is mixed. Authorities have a history of sending asylum seekers and even registered refugees back to their home countries at the request of foreign governments.

In November, former Bahraini national football player Hakeem Al-Araibi was detained in Thailand after authorities threatened to send him back to Bahrain, where rights groups say he would face imprisonment and torture. Al-Araibi had fled his home country in 2014 and was granted refugee status in Australia after speaking out about Bahraini officials' practice of torturing footballers who take part in demonstrations, according to Human Rights Watch. He remains in custody in Thailand awaiting the outcome of Bahrain's extradition request.

In May 2017, Thai authorities assisted in handing Turkish asylum seeker Muhammet Furkan Sökmen to Turkish authorities because of alleged connections to exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey deems responsible for a failed coup in 2016.

And in 2015, Thailand reportedly deported to China 100 Uyghur Muslim asylum seekers. Beijing has held an estimated one million Uyghurs in camps across the country's west.

The UNHCR said it was "very grateful" that the Thai authorities did not deport Al-Qunun "against her will and are extending protection for her."

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