Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 September 2019

Thailand grants reprieve for Rahaf Alqunun as family headed for Bangkok

The UN refugee agency said it was grateful the 18-year old had not been deported

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun is greeted by Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Thai police via Reuters
Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun is greeted by Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Thai police via Reuters

Thailand has granted a reprieve from deportation for a Saudi woman fleeing her family although a claim for asylum will take several days, the UN said on Tuesday.

Rahaf Alqunun arrived in Bangkok international airport on a flight from Kuwait on Tuesday after running away from her family who she says are abusive.

Thai officials met with counterparts from the Kingdom on Tuesday and Maj Gen Surachate Hakparn, Thailand's immigration police chief, said that Saudi officials said they were satisfied with the handling of the case.

Saudi officials say they have not requested the 18-year-old Ms Alqunun be deported and had not had anything to do with the handling of the case. Authorities in the kingdom insist it is a family matter although the embassy has been giving the case "care and attention" and it has been in contact with Ms Alqunun’s father, a regional government official in the kingdom, "to inform him on her situation".

Ms Alqunun said she was transiting to Australia where she planned to claim refuge but was stopped by authorities who tried to deport her back to Kuwait citing visa violations. After a tense standoff in the airport hotel, where Ms Alqunun barricaded herself in her room, Thai authorities allowed UNHCR representatives to meet her.

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UNHCR meets Saudi teenager fleeing family in Bangkok airport

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As her plight pinballed across social media, Thai authorities abruptly changed course and allowed her to leave the airport on Monday evening in the care of the UN's refugee agency.

Australia said it would consider an application for protection, although media reported that Ms Alqunun’s visa for onward travel to the country had been cancelled – although there was no official confirmation.

“The Australian Government is pleased that Ms Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun is having her claim for protection assessed [by the UN]," a Department of Home Affairs official said.

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

The UN agency said it was "very grateful" officials did not send the women back against her will.

"It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps," the UNHCR representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vicentiis, said in a statement.

Thailand is not a signatory of the UN convention on refugees and those seeking protection are often left in years of limbo as they wait for third countries to grant them asylum.

The UNHCR insists anyone with an asylum claim should not be sent back to the country they fled under the principle of non-refoulement.

The Thai immigration chief said the Saudi embassy had alerted Thai authorities to the case, saying that the woman had run away from her parents and they feared for her safety.

In an earlier and separate explanation released on Twitter, the embassy also denied sending officials to Suvarnabhumi airport to meet Ms Alqunun as she arrived via Kuwait or impounding her passport – as she alleged.

Mr Hakparn told reporters that Ms Alqunun's father and brother were due in Thailand later on Tuesday.

He said he would talk to the UN refugee agency about the potential of a meeting between the family members.

"[Ms] Rahaf is not a political asylum case," he insisted. "It is not political at all."

Under the hashtag #SaveRahaf, the young woman's desperate pleas became a social media sensation, and she was able to post live updates and videos from the Bangkok airport in both Arabic and English, racking up more than 80,000 followers.

Updated: January 8, 2019 05:35 PM

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