Saturday 25 May 2019

Saudi teen who fears for her life 'a refugee'

Fear: Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Fear: Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Adam Withnall

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family and refused to leave her Bangkok hotel room is a refugee, a UN agency has said.

The case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has been referred to Australia for possible asylum.

In a brief statement, Australia said it would consider the request "in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] referrals".

Ms Al-Qunun said she had renounced Islam - known as apostasy and punishable by death in Saudi Arabia - and that she feared her family would kill her as a result.

She arrived in Thailand on Saturday on a layover between Kuwait and Australia, but was detained by the Thai authorities.

Publicising her case on social media, Ms Al-Qunun refused to board a flight back to Kuwait, barricading herself in a hotel room.

She was later placed in the care of UNHCR workers while her bid for refugee status was considered.

Yesterday, Thailand's immigration police chief said Ms Al-Qunun's father and brother had arrived together in Bangkok but Ms Al-Qunun had refused to meet them.

The case has been held up as an extraordinary example of the power of social media to rally an international community behind a cause.

Ms Al-Qunun started posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, saying she had "escaped Kuwait" and her life would be in danger if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, a campaign had sprung up on Twitter, spread by a loose network of activists around the world, and after no more than 36 hours it prompted Thailand's government to reverse a decision to force the young woman on to a plane that would return her to her family.

She was allowed to enter Thailand and begin the process of seeking asylum in a third country through the UN refugee agency.

The Australian government has previously stated Ms Al-Qunun will not be given special treatment due to the high-profile nature of her case.

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

The department said it would consider the referral "in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals".

Nonetheless, Australian health minister Greg Hunt has hinted an application would be accepted.

He told ABC news: "If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa."

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