Australia to 'consider' Saudi woman's asylum plea

Leroy Wright
January 9, 2019

The Australian government said on Tuesday that it will "carefully consider" the asylum claim by Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who fled alleged abuse from her family and is now in the care of the United Nations humanitarian agency in Bangkok after she fended off deportation in a gripping, live-tweeted ordeal.

Its latest statement, which described Qunun's case as a "family affair", said Saudi Arabia did not demand her deportation back home.

Early on prominent journalist Mona Eltahaway picked up the thread, retweeting Qunun's story to her more than 300,000 followers.

The spokesperson said the government had "serious concerns on this matter and the need for Ms Al-Qunun's claim to be assessed expeditiously".

"Any application by Ms Al-Qunun for a humanitarian visa will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded".

Now her dad has arrived in Bangkok with the wish to "talk to her", Thailand's immigration chief said today.

This handout picture taken and released by Thai Immigration Bureau on January 7, 2019 shows 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun, middle, being escorted by the Thai immigration officer and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officials at the Suvarnabhumi global airport in Bangkok. "Please help me." Instead, she was reportedly "dragged onto a plane from Manila to Riyadh with her mouth taped shut and her arms and legs bound".

"I'm sure 100 per cent they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail", she told AFP, adding that she was "scared" and "losing hope". However, in repeated statements, including one issued Tuesday, the Saudi Embassy in Thailand said it is only monitoring her situation.

Through her newly launched Twitter account, Rahaf has been calling on all several country to help her seek refugee status including the US, UK, Canada and Australia.

Alqunun said she planned to seek asylum in Australia, fearing she would be killed if repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her at the airport.

The Australian government says it will seriously consider giving a Saudi teenager stuck in Bangkok a humanitarian visa if the United Nations deems her a refugee.

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It also said the embassy had made contact with her father, a senior regional government official in the kingdom, "to inform him on her situation".

She was given her passport back and Thai authorities confirmed she had been granted temporary entry to the country.

"We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back (Qunun) against her will and are extending protection to her", he said. "My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait", Rahaf said to Reuters.

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees at its Geneva headquarters, Babar Baloch, said it could take several days for the agency to look into Alqunun's claims.

Thai immigration chief Surachet Hakparn speaks outside the Saudi embassy after a meeting with Saudi officials in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Immigration Minister David Coleman is "very likely" to grant asylum to Alqunun, subject to normal security vetting processes, according to The Australian.

She said she would be imprisoned or worse if she was sent back to Saudi Arabia, telling Human Rights Watch she was fleeing abuse from her family, including beatings and death threats from male relatives, who forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair.

She said she had asserted her independence, but had been forced to pray and wear a hijab and alleged she had been beaten by her brother.

In some cases, Saudi authorities were involved in forcing women to return to their families and in other cases, local authorities suspected the women of seeking asylum and deported them, the activist said.

In October, the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey further heightened tensions and put worldwide scrutiny on the country's human rights record. Public pressure prompted Thai officials to return her passport and let her temporarily stay in Thailand.

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