Australian minister hints Saudi teen likely to get asylum

Hugh Fox
January 9, 2019

"Canada is very concerned by and watching closely the situation of Ms. Rahaf al-Qunun", said Stefano Maron, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, right, before leaving the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.

"Her time in Thailand is uncertain and while it's positive that she has access to UNHCR and her case is being reviewed, we know that the Thai authorities have kept other individuals and those who've sought asylum in reprimand, in detention, waiting for long periods of time to be granted asylum", she said.

A Saudi woman's ongoing bid to flee her country via Thailand this week threw the kingdom's male guardianship system into the worldwide limelight, setting in motion a showdown between Saudi Arabia's restrictions on women and the United Nations' asylum process.

Her urgent pleas for help over Twitter from an airport hotel room garnered tens of thousands of followers and the attention of the U.N.'s refugee agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In a statement from the government, Ms Alqunun will be subject to Australian checks before she is granted a humanitarian visa, including character and security assessments.

But armed with a phone, she barricaded herself into an airside hotel room and fought back - live-tweeting her fears of deportation in a campaign that swiftly galvanised worldwide support and prompted a sharp U-turn by Thai officials.

Qunun has said she believes she will be imprisoned or killed if sent back, and that her family is so strict they once locked her in a room for six months for cutting her hair.

"Any application by Ms al-Qunun for a humanitarian visa will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded", a Department of Home Affairs official told AFP news agency.

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Indications from Canberra suggest Alqunun may receive a sympathetic hearing.

"The Department of Home Affairs will consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals", a spokesperson said.

Thai officials confiscated the 18-year-old's passport when she flew into Bangkok.

Alqunun's case has again highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia.

According to the worldwide law's principle of non-refoulement, asylum seekers can not be returned to their country of origin if their life is under threat. Human rights activists say many more similar cases will have gone unreported.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, pictured at Bangkok airport, says she "wants to be free" away from Saudi Arabia.

Surachate discussed her case on Tuesday with Saudi Charge d'Affaires in Thailand Abdalelah Mohammed A. Alsheaiby.

According to 9 News, the Australian embassy had contacted the Thai government and the UNHCR's Bangkok office to confirm Alqunun could apply for refugee status. Like Alqunun, she had set her sights on Australia and reached out for help on social media. "If you sent her back to Saudi Arabia after saying that, forget about her".

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"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not asked for her extradition".

The decision was a matter for Immigration Minister David Coleman, Mr Dutton said.

Surachet said earlier that she was stopped at the request of her family who alerted the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok.

The embassy, along with Thai officials, earlier said that al-Qunun was stopped by Thai authorities in Bangkok because she did not have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist, which appeared to have raised a flag about the reasons for her trip.

While such operations often rely on cooperative governments, Saudi authorities have also pursued dissidents in more risky scenarios - most notably Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, sparking a tense public reckoning with Turkish authorities.

While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been steadily easing restrictions on women, notably granting them the right to open their own businesses and to drive cars, the guardianship system remains in place and authorities remain sensitive to social codes.

Renunciation of Islam, known as apostasy, is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

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