Saudi woman Rahaf al-Qunun ends airport hotel standoff

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, pictured at Bangkok airport, says she does not want to return to Saudi Arabia
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, pictured at Bangkok airport, says she does not want to return to Saudi Arabia

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family at the weekend has left Bangkok airport “under the care” of the UN refugee agency, the head of Thailand’s immigration police says.

Thai immigration officials had tried to return Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, to Kuwait, where her family is.

But she refused to board a flight on Monday and barricaded herself into her airport hotel room.

She said she feared her family would kill her as she had renounced Islam.

“My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait,” Ms Mohammed al-Qunun told Reuters.

“My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”

Her relatives have not commented on her claims.

Rights groups including Human Rights Watch have expressed grave concerns for Ms Mohammed al-Qunun, who had travelled to Thailand for a connecting flight to Australia, where she hoped to seek asylum.

The Thai authorities said her status would be assessed by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

On Monday evening local time, Thailand’s chief of immigration police Surachate Hakparn confirmed that Ms Mohammed al-Qunun was “allowed to stay”, and that she “left the airport with the UNHCR”.

He earlier said the country would “take care of her as best we can”, adding: “She is now under the sovereignty of Thailand; no-one and no embassy can force her to go anywhere.

“Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die.”

Mr Surachate said he would meet Saudi diplomats on Tuesday to clarify Thailand’s decision.

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Ms Mohammed al-Qunun tweeted that her father had arrived, “which worried and scared me a lot”, but said she felt safe “under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities”.

Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and provides no legal protection to asylum seekers although there are more than 100,000 refugees in the country.

An injunction filed by Thai lawyers in Bangkok criminal court to stop the deportation was dismissed earlier on Monday.

How did the stand-off start?

Ms Mohammed al-Qunun says that when she arrived in Bangkok on Saturday, her passport was seized by a Saudi diplomat who met her coming off the flight.

Thailand initially said she was being deported because she did not meet the requirements for a Thai visa.

However, Ms Mohammed al-Qunun insisted she had a visa for Australia, and that she never wanted to stay in Thailand.

Saudi Arabia said the Thai authorities had stopped the young woman for “violating the law”.

On Monday, police chief Mr Surachate said the Thais had been tipped off by Saudi officials, adding: “The Saudi Arabia embassy contacted the immigration police… and said that the girl had run away from her parents and they feared for her safety.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told the BBC: “It seems that the Thai government is manufacturing a story that she tried to apply for a visa and it was denied… in fact, she had an onward ticket to go to Australia, she didn’t want to enter Thailand in the first place.”

How was the world alerted?

Ms Mohammed al-Qunun drew attention to her plight through social media posts over the weekend. She also gave a friend, Noura, access to her Twitter account, saying it was in case anything should happen to her.

“I shared my story and my pictures on social media and my father is so angry because I did this… I can’t study and work in my country, so I want to be free and study and work as I want,” she said.

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