UN rescues Saudi asylum seeker
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 UN refugee agency, immigration authorities said yesterday.
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 UN 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,’’ said Thai Immigration Police chief Major General Surachate Hakparn.
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 yesterday by immigration police showed Alqunun with Thai and UN 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 that she feels safe under UN 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 Sunday, 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 UN refugee officials to meet her. –AP