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Thailand

Thailand says Saudi teenager who fled her family fearing death to seek asylum abroad won’t be forcibly deported

  • The 18-year-old said her family had subjected her to physical and psychological abuse
  • Saudi Arabia has come under fierce criticism following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on October 2
PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2019, 8:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2019, 10:54pm

A Saudi woman who made a desperate plea for asylum after landing at Bangkok airport will not be forcibly deported from Thailand, an official said on Monday.

Saudi Arabia has faced intense scrutiny over its human rights records in recent months following the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun flew to Thailand in the hopes of reaching Australia to seek asylum. She said she ran away from her family while travelling in Kuwait because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.

The 18-year-old told reporters she feared she would be killed if she was repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her during transit on Sunday.

“My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait,” she said by text and voice message from the hotel late on Sunday. “They will kill me. My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”

Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn had said on Sunday that Qunun was denied entry because she lacked “further documents such as return ticket or money”.

But he made an abrupt about-face the next day, following a global media frenzy as the young woman pleaded on Twitter for different countries to help her.

Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die
Surachate Hakparn

“If she does not want to leave, we will not force her,” he told reporters at Suvarnabhumi airport.

“The [UN’s refugee agency] and I will … listen to what she wants, whether or not she wants to receive asylum to which country, and we will help coordinate.”

Qunun was stopped by immigration because Saudi Arabian officials contacted them to say she had fled her family, according to Surachate. If she wished to stay in Thailand, the UN would have to verify the legitimacy of her asylum claims, he said.

“Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die,” he said. “We will take care of her as best as we can.”

The UN’s refugee agency said it had been granted access to Qunun at the airport “to assess her need for international refugee protection and find an immediate solution for her situation”.

The teenager earlier posted a video on Twitter showing herself barricading her hotel room door with furniture.

She said Saudi and Kuwaiti officials had taken her travel document from her when she landed – a claim backed by Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

But Surachate said it was Thailand’s “procedure to take the passport of anyone who we deny entry to.”

‘I can’t breathe’: gruesome transcript reveals murdered Saudi journalist Khashoggi’s last words

Earlier a Thai court dismissed an injunction to block Qunun’s deportation, according to human rights lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman, who filed the request.

“They said we do not have enough evidence,” she said, adding thatshe planned to appeal.

Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, told Saudi-owned TV channel Khalijia that the woman’s father had contacted the diplomatic mission for “help” bringing her back.

But he denied that her passport had been seized and that embassy officials were present inside the airport.

A Twitter statement from the Saudi embassy in Bangkok said Qunun was stopped by Thai authorities for “violating the law”.

“She will be deported to the State of Kuwait where her family” lives, it added. Qunun, however, said that she was only travelling in the Gulf state.

Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has long been criticised for imposing some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women, including a guardianship system that allows men to exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on behalf of their female relatives.

In addition to facing punishment for “moral” crimes, women can also become the target of “honour killings” at the hands of their families, activists say.

If sent back, Qunun said she would likely be imprisoned and was “sure 100 per cent” her family would kill her.

“My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she said.

Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said Qunun “faces grave harm if she is forced back to Saudi Arabia”.

“Given Saudi Arabia’s long track record of looking the other way in so-called honour violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be ignored,” he said.

“She has clearly stated that she has renounced Islam which also puts her at serious risk of prosecution by the Saudi Arabian government.”

An Australian government spokesman said the claims made by Qunun “that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning” and they are monitoring Qunun’s case “closely”.

Bahraini refugee arrested in Thailand while trying to fly back to Australia

Thailand has long been a hub for asylum seekers due to its loose visa requirements, but has never ratified the UN convention recognising the status of refugees.

Once their visas expire, refugees and asylum seekers face being arrested and some of them have even been deported to the countries they were escaping from in the past. Thailand was internationally criticised for deporting more than 100 Uygurs back to China in 2015 and made headlines last year after it detained a Bahraini national with refugee status in Australia and sent an activist back to Cambodia who was attempting to flee to the Netherlands.

Additional reporting by Laura Villadiego