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Asylum seekers in Asia

Saudi teenager seeking asylum in Thailand may get fast-tracked refugee status, activists say

  • Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is being evaluated by the UN refugee agency to assess her need for international protection, a process that usually takes months
  • Human Rights Watch says a return to her home country would put her in danger as she has renounced Islam
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 7:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 7:48pm

The case of the 18-year-old Saudi woman who made a desperate call for asylum from an airport in Thailand may be fast tracked as her renunciation of Islam could put her in danger should she be returned home, according to activists.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is now being evaluated by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to assess her need for international protection, a process that usually takes months.

If you sent her back to Saudi Arabia after[renouncing Islam], forget about her
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch

“Because this is a high profile case and because she has a lot of support from the international community, I think it is very possible that this could end very quickly,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“She is going to be found as a refugee because she has made very clear that she has renounced Islam … If you sent her back to Saudi Arabia after saying that, forget about her.”

Teenage traveller Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who says she fears death in Saudi Arabia, is now ‘under care of UN’, says Thailand

Apostasy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

Asylum seekers must usually follow a long process to prove they fled their countries due to situations that put their lives at risk, or that returning to their countries would threaten their freedom or lives.

If the refugee condition is granted, Qunun will have to wait until a resettlement offer is made by a third country.

Thailand has never ratified the UN convention that recognises refugee status, and it considers refugees and asylum seekers as it would any other migrant. However, Robertson thinks that the offer will come soon due to “the high profile of the case”.

The UNHCR representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vincentis, said in a statement that “it could take several days to process the case and determine next steps”, but the agency did not comment on the details “for reasons of protection and confidentiality”.

Qunun was stopped in Bangkok as she was trying to reach Australia to seek asylum after escaping from her family during a holiday in Kuwait.

The teenager, who claimed that she has been physically and mentally abused by her family, attracted international media attention when she made a desperate call for asylum through her Twitter account claiming that she would be killed if she was returned to her family.

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Qunun has now more than 90,000 followers on Twitter, while a petition on Change.org asking to grant her asylum in Britain had reached more almost 80,000 signatures by Tuesday evening.

Speaking to The Guardian, Qunun’s friend Nourah Alharbi said the outpouring of support on social media had made a huge difference.

“Yesterday, they [social media supporters] made the difference in Rahaf’s life,” she said. “You saved Rahaf’s life yesterday: the people, the media.”

Alharbi mentioned the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman who in April 2017 was returned to Saudi Arabia from the Philippines against her will and whose fate is unclear. “She didn’t get that [social media] support and that’s why she’s in Saudi Arabia now – she’s disappeared,” Alharbi said.

Thailand’s immigration police said during the weekend that Qunun would be sent back to Kuwait on a flight that was departing Monday morning, before allowing her to temporarily stay in the country so the UNHCR could assess her case.

“If she goes home it will be dangerous for her so Thailand is ready to help,” General Surachate Hakparn, the head of Thailand’s immigration police, told the media. “Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die.”

The embassy of Saudi Arabia in Bangkok declined to comment on the case, but the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement through its Twitter account claiming that the embassy “did not impound the girl’s passport”, as Qunun claimed on Twitter, and that they “did not meet or communicate with her”, only with the Thai authorities.

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The ministry also confirmed that they had been in contact with the girl’s father, “as it’s the Embassy’s role to inform him on her situation and the date of her return”.

Qunun said on Twitter that she was “scared” because her father arrived in Thailand yesterday, but that her passport had been returned to her.

“At least I feel safe now under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities,” she posted.

Additional reporting by The Guardian