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  • “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not asked for her extradition. The embassy considers this issue a family matter,” the Saudi embassy said in a tweet.

    “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not asked for her extradition. The embassy considers this issue a family matter,” the Saudi embassy said in a tweet. | Photo: Reuters

Published 9 January 2019

Australia said Tuesday it would consider her request if the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deemed her a refugee. It did so Wednesday.

The United Nations granted refugee status to an 18-year-old Saudi woman Wednesday.  Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun has sought asylum in Australia since Saturday when she fled her family fearing for her life.

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Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room Monday to avoid being repatriated by Thai authorities after escaping alone from a family gathering in Kuwait.

Thai immigration officials had planned to put Alqunun on a flight back to Kuwait but acquiesced after her online cries for help drew international attention.

Alqunun has requested asylum, saying she fears her family will kill her if forced to return home. She says she renounced Islam, an offense punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

"The UNHCR has referred Ms. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement," Australia's Department of Homeland Security said in an email Wednesday.

The department said it would consider the referral "in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals." It declined to comment further. The UNHCR office in Thailand also declined to comment.

According to the UNHRC website, nation-states have “the responsibility for determining the status of asylum-seekers.” However, the agency has the power to grant refugee status “where states are unable or unwilling.”

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“In recent years, due to changes in volumes and patterns of forced displacement, the refugee agency has been required to conduct RSD [Refugee Status Determination] in more countries than before and for a greater number of people,” the UNHRC states.

Alqunun’s father and brother arrived in Bangkok wanting to meet his daughter but she refused to meet them, Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said.

"He wanted to make sure that his daughter was safe... he told me that he wanted to take her home," Hakparn said, adding that her father denied allegations that the family was abusing the 18-year-old woman physically and emotionally.

Surachate said Alqunun's father would remain in Thailand under the care of the Saudi Arabian embassy until it is determined where Alqunun will receive asylum.

She was initially denied entry to Thailand when she arrived Saturday. She soon started posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport saying that she had "escaped Kuwait" and her life would be in danger if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, a loose network of activists around the world kick-started a Twitter campaign which prompted the Thai government to reverse a decision to return the young woman to her family.

The case has drawn global attention to Saudi Arabia's strict social rules for women, including a requirement that women have a male guardian’s permission to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

This comes at a time when Riyadh is facing an unusually intense amount of scrutiny from Western allies over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, as well as the humanitarian consequences of the country’s war against Yemen. U.N. experts have been investigating possible war crimes by Saudi Arabia.

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