Saudi woman seeking asylum in Australia to meet with UN refugee agency
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Saudi woman seeking asylum in Australia to meet with UN refugee agency

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who was stopped in Bangkok as she was en route to Australia to claim asylum from her abusive family has left her airport hotel room after receiving temporary admission into Thailand.

The Australian government has confirmed it is monitoring Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun's case, and that embassy officials in Bangkok have made representations to the UN refugee agency and the Thai government about her fears for her safety, which it said were "deeply concerning."

The head of Thailand's immigration police said al-Qunun was allowed to temporarily enter Thailand on Monday under the protection of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which was expected to take at least five to seven days to evaluate her case and asylum claim.

Immigration police released photos of al-Qunun after she left the hotel room, but did not confirm where she would be staying in the Thai capital.

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Al-Qunun had barricaded herself in her hotel room while she sent out desperate pleas for help over social media. She began posting on Twitter late Saturday after her passport was taken away after she arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait.

She was stopped at Bangkok airport where she was transiting and says Saudi officials there seized her passport and tried to return her to Kuwait. She had issued a direct plea to the Australian government for help.

"Please I need u all. I'm shouting out for help of humanity," she tweeted.

"Now and immediately Rahaf needs protection in particular from the following country European countries/Canada/United States/Australia/United kingdom, please contact us!"

Late Sunday night, the UNHCR confirmed its Bangkok protection team was meeting with al-Qunun, who later tweeted that she had had her passport returned and felt safe under UNCHR protection.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is urging the government to act swiftly.

“We understand she has a visa and needs emergency travel documents to be brought safely here,” she said.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun says she is fleeing abuse by her family and wants asylum in Australia.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun says she is fleeing abuse by her family and wants asylum in Australia. Credit:AP

“Time is of the essence. Rahaf could be sent back to Saudi Arabia within hours without our intervention.

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A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the Australian government was monitoring the case "closely."

"The claims made by Ms al-Qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning," the spokesman said.

"The Australian Embassy in Thailand has made representations to both the Thai Government and the Bangkok office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to seek assurances that Ms al-Qunun can access the UNHCR’s refugee status determination process in Thailand."

Thailand's immigration police chief says she would not be sent anywhere against her wishes.

Human Rights Watch said al-Qunun risked criminal charges in Saudi Arabia for "parental disobedience," which can result in imprisonment, as well as for "harming the reputation of the kingdom."

Al-Qunun also says she has renounced Islam, a criminal offence in Saudi Arabia that can be punishable by death.

"Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation, and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Surachate also said that if Thai authorities decided not to send al-Qunun back to Saudi Arabia, they would need to justify this decision to Saudi authorities in order to safeguard relations with the country.

Saudi Arabia's relations with Thailand have been strained for decades after gems including a valuable blue diamond were stolen from a Saudi prince by a Thai employee and a Saudi businessman who travelled to investigate after the theft.

While Saudi Arabia has gradually granted women more rights, the conservative Islamic kingdom still applies a guardianship system that makes women legal dependents of male relatives.

In 2017, another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia while in transit in the Philippines during an attempt to get to Australia. She was held in a detention facility for women under 30 upon her return, and it's unclear what happened to her after that.

Thailand's military government was criticised last year for arresting Hakeem al-Araibi, a former Bahrain soccer player with refugee status in Australia. He had been in Thailand for his honeymoon and remains in detention pending possible extradition to Bahrain.

with AP, Bloomberg

Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.

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