UN res­cues Saudi asy­lum seeker

Marlborough Express - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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