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Saudi woman seeking asylum can stay temporarily in Thailand

Saudi woman seeking asylum can stay temporarily in Thailand

January 8th, 2019 in International News

In this photo released by the Immigration Bureau, Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, foreground walks by Chief of Immigration Police Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, right, before leaving the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. A Saudi woman who says she is fleeing abuse by her family and wants asylum in Australia has sent out desperate pleas for help over social media. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, began posting on Twitter late Saturday after her passport was taken away when she arrived on a flight from Kuwait. (Immigration police via AP)

BANGKOK (AP) — An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family over alleged abuse and barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room in a desperate bid for asylum will be allowed to stay in Thailand while her case is evaluated by the U.N. refugee agency, immigration authorities said Monday.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun grabbed global attention when she sent out pleas for help via social media, saying she feared for her life if she were put on a plane back to Kuwait, where she had slipped away from her family, or her homeland.

Instead, she has been allowed to enter Thailand temporarily under the protection of the U.N. refugee agency, which was expected to take about five to seven days to study her case and her claim for asylum. She said she wants to go to Australia to seek refuge there.

“We will not send anyone to die. We will not do that. We will adhere to human rights under the rule of law,” Thai Immigration Police chief Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said.

Alqunun’s plight mirrors that of other Saudi women who in recent years have turned to social media to amplify their calls for help while trying to flee abusive families and other obstacles they face in the conservative kingdom.

Photos released Monday night by immigration police showed Alqunun with Thai and U.N. officials after she left the airport transit hotel room where she had been holed up over the weekend, sending her pleas for help on her Twitter account. She later tweeted she feels safe under U.N. protection and has gotten back her passport, which had been taken from her earlier.

Alqunun’s ordeal began when she fled from her family while in Kuwait and boarded a flight to Thailand, apparently taking advantage of being away from Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women who cannot travel abroad without a man’s consent.

Upon arriving at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on Saturday night, she said she was met by a man whom she identified at various times as either a Kuwait Airways employee or a Saudi diplomat, who took her passport and said he would help her gain entry to Thailand. Saudi Arabia denies its officials were involved in any way.

When the man returned about an hour later with four or five other people, they said they knew she had run away, that her family wanted her back, and she should go home to Saudi Arabia. She was sent to a hotel room, and told she would be put on a Monday morning flight to Kuwait.

She then went online, sending out pleas for assistance over Twitter, and also barricaded her hotel room door. Global attention was sparked by social media and she did not get on the scheduled morning flight to Kuwait.

Alqunun wrote of being in “real danger” if forced to return to her family in Saudi Arabia, and said in media interviews that she might be killed. She told the BBC that she had renounced Islam and was fearful of her father’s retaliation.

Her Twitter account attracted more than 66,000 followers in less than 48 hours and her story grabbed the attention of foreign governments and the U.N. refugee agency. As the pressure grew, with concern expressed by Australian lawmakers, Germany’s ambassador to Thailand and human rights agencies, Thai officials agreed to allow U.N refugee officials to meet with her.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it expected to take at least five to seven days to evaluate her case and claims, said Surachate, the Thai immigration police chief.

Giuseppe De Vincentiis, the UNHCR representative in Thailand, told journalists he did not know where Alqunun would be staying but she would be safe because she was under his agency’s protection. UNHCR declined to release any details of its meeting with her, but De Vincentiis noted “a good spirit of collaboration so far” with Thai officials.

Surachate said Alqunun’s father was due to arrive Monday night, and officials would see if she was willing to meet with him.

“As of now, she does not wish to go back and we will not force her. She won’t be sent anywhere tonight,” Surachate said at a news conference.

“She fled hardship. Thailand is a land of smiles,” he said.

He noted her tweets mentioned “she does not want Islam,” adding “this type of thing, in her country, is a hard crime.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press that Thailand should let Alqunun continue her journey to Australia.

“She has a valid Australian visa,” he said. “The key thing is she should not be sent back to Saudi Arabia, she should not be sent back into harm’s way.”

Surachate challenged parts of Alqunun’s story, including that she had an Australian visa.

“The fact is she didn’t have any money. She intended to come here and didn’t have any visa to go to Australia. So we have to state the facts here. But we will provide assistance nonetheless,” he said.

He later said Kuwait Airways had been at fault for allowing her to board her flight to Thailand without having proper travel documents. The airline did not immediately comment.