Saudi refugee in U.N. custody as Australia considers granting asylum

Australian officials made overtures Tuesday indicating they may take in an 18-year-old Saudi refugee, so she can make an asylum claim there.

Rahaf Mohammed Al-qunun (C) walks with Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn (R) at a transit hotel inside Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday. Photo by Thai Immigration Bureau
Rahaf Mohammed Al-qunun (C) walks with Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn (R) at a transit hotel inside Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday. Photo by Thai Immigration Bureau

Rahaf Mohammed Al-qunun attempted to travel to Australia last weekend, but was stopped and detained in Thailand after fleeing Kuwait where her family was vacationing. The woman said she’s renounced Islam and could face danger if she’s forced to return home.
“The Australian government is pleased that Ms. Rahaf Mohammed Al-qunun is having her claim for protection assessed by the [U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees],” a representative for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said in a statement to 9 News.

“The government has made representations to the Thai government and the Bangkok office of the UNHCR about its serious concerns on this matter and the need for Ms. Al-qunun’s claim to be assessed expeditiously.”
Australian officials have expressed concern about what could happen if she is returned to her family.

Rahda Stirling, a Dubai-based human rights lawyer, said Al-qunun could be jailed “for many years” for renouncing Islam and violating Saudi law, because she traveled without the permission of a male guardian.

“The claims made by Al-qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning,” a spokesman for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said.
South Australia Sen. Sarah Hanson-Young has called on her country take in the refugee.

“Australian Government should work now with the U.N. refugee agency to offer young Saudi woman Rahaf Alqunun safety in Australia,” Hanson-Young wrote on Twitter. “Offering her sanctuary and the chance to live free of discrimination in a country that respects women & girls is the right thing to do.”

For now, Al-qunun remains in UNHCR custody in Bangkok while officials investigate her asylum claim. The woman said she was abused by her father and older brother before she escaped on an Air Kuwait flight.

Thai officials said Tuesday Al-qunun’s father and brother had arrived in Thailand to take her home.

Thai officials said they would try to reconcile the two sides, and a UNHCR spokeswoman said any family meeting would probably happen at a later time.

“As she has stated, [she has] fear of seeing her family,” Caroline Gluck, UNHCR senior regional public information officer, said. “This will be very disturbing news for her.”

In a statement Monday, the UNHCR said it’s following developments closely and immediately sought access to Al-qunun from Thai authorities to determine if she needed international protection.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asian director for Human Rights Watch, said U.N. officials will likely discuss refugee resettlement options and possible destinations with Al-qunun.

“This needs to proceed quickly to get her safe,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “[Human Rights Watch] is monitoring the situation closely.”

Al-qunun, whose last name has multiple spellings, was initially detained last weekend at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and was expected to be deported. However, she refused to board a flight back to Kuwait and barricaded herself in a hotel room, using social media to draw attention to her plight.

Robertson said earlier Al-qunun’s fears cannot be discounted given Saudi Arabia’s history of looking the other way in honor violence among families. Saudi officials say in the meantime, she should be returned to Kuwait.

ByClyde Hughes