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  • Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun

    Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun | Photo: Reuters

Published 7 January 2019

After nearly being deported by Thai officials on way to asylum in Australia, Saudi teen taken in on Monday by U.N. refugee agency. 

An 18-year-old Saudi woman is in talks with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) after she fled from her family in Kuwait and locked herself in a Bangkok hotel to avoid being repatriated by Thai authorities.

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Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun had barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel on Saturday placing chairs and mattresses against the door so as to prevent Thai officials from putting her on a plane back to Kuwait. Thai immigration officials had planned to put Qunun on a flight on Monday back to Kuwait, but relented after her online cries for help drew international attention.

She says she fears her family will kill her if she is forced to return home. Her relatives have not commented on her accusations of abuse and Reuters was not able to reach them.

“They will kill me,” she told the newspaper. “My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”

The case has drawn new global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict rules for women that include requiring male “guardians” or relatives to travel with them, apply for a passport or get married.

Qunun has said that she had fled Kuwait during a family visit there and they are awaiting her return. "My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait."

Her relatives have not commented on the situation.

In a connection flight to Australia where the young woman was planning to seek asylum, Qunun was held by Thai authorities in the Bangkok airport and told she would be sent back to the country she had just flown from. Her passport was seized by a Saudi diplomat as soon as she came off her Bangkok flight. According to the BBC a Thai immigration official said: "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."

Qunun has since had her passport returned.

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Asked why she was seeking refuge in Australia, she told Reuters: “Physical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months. They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education.

“They won’t let me drive or travel. I am oppressed. I love life and work and I am very ambitious but my family is preventing me from living,” she reported.

A UNHCR representative met Qunun at the airport and also discussed the case with Thai immigration officials. After the meeting, Thailand’s immigration chief said she would not be expelled from the country.

“We will take her into Bangkok and provide her with safe shelter under the care of the UNHCR,” immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters on Monday evening.

He said the UNHCR would work on processing Qunun’s request for refugee status. Giuseppe de Vincentis, the UNHCR representative in Thailand, said the Thai government had given assurances Qunun would not be expelled to any country where she might be in danger while her case was being processed.

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