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Australia Will Consider Granting Asylum To Saudi Woman Who Fears For Her Life

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun on her mobile phone as she sat barricaded in a hotel room in Thailand's international airport in Bangkok on Monday.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch via AP
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun on her mobile phone as she sat barricaded in a hotel room in Thailand's international airport in Bangkok on Monday.

Updated at 4:40 p.m. ET

A Saudi woman who fled her family in hopes of seeking asylum in Australia, only to be detained in Thailand, may receive Australia's protection after all.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, plotted an escape from what she describes as persistent abuse and oppression by family members in Saudi Arabia. She began by boarding a plane by herself to Thailand, but the plan quickly spiraled out of control.

At Bangkok's international airport, security officials stopped her and confiscated her passport, whichshe said was later returned. Alqunun said she was taken to a transit hotel room in the airport as Thai officials arranged for her to be deported.

Alqunun barricaded herself in the hotel room and announced on social media that she wouldn't leave until she met with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "I want asylum," she said.

Amid global outcry, she was granted temporary entry into Thailand under the protection of the refugee agency. The UNHCR is currently evaluating her asylum claim, which is expected to take up to a week.

"The Australian government is pleased that Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun is having her claim for protection assessed by the UNHCR," a spokesperson for Australia's Department of Home Affairs told NPR on Tuesday.

The spokesperson said the government had "serious concerns on this matter and the need for Ms Al-Qunun's claim to be assessed expeditiously." An application for a humanitarian visa "will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded."

Alqunun's father — a senior Saudi official — and her brother, who she says often physically abused her, are currently in Thailand. The arrival "scared me a lot," she said Monday on Twitter.

So far, family members don't appear to have commented publicly on the allegations of abuse.

A U.N. spokesperson told NPR that the refugee agency has had no contact with either family member but that the father and son are communicating with Thai authorities to try to meet with Alqunun.

Thailand's immigration police chief, Surachet Hakpal, told CNN that he would try to set up a meeting with family members if the U.N. agency permitted it.

"The decision to meet with the family is ultimately Ms. Al Qunun's and the responsibility for her safety and physical protection lies with the Thai authorities," UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch told NPR.

"Only she can make that choice, she's an adult woman who can make her own decisions!" Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter.

He told Australia's ABC that he was concerned about the arrival of Alqunun's father in Thailand. "We have no idea what he is going to do ... whether he will try to find out where she is and go harass her," Robertson said.

Saudi's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that its embassy in Bangkok was in contact with the father "as it's the Embassy's role to inform him on her situation and the date of her return." It said the embassy is not communicating with the teenager, but is communicating with Thai authorities.

"The girl has violated immigration and residency laws because she does not have a return ticket or a hotel reservation, and she does not have a tourism program," the statement read.

Alqunun told The New York Times that she started planning an escape when she was 16. She said family members physically abused her often. Once, she said, her family locked her up in a room for half a year because she cut her hair in a style they disliked.

"They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism," she said.

International pressure has mounted on Thai authorities to keep Alqunun safe and to ensure she isn't forcibly returned to the Saudi kingdom, which has been subject to international condemnationover the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

Alqunun's case is similar to that of Dina Ali Lasloom, a young Saudi woman who fled to the Philippines from Kuwait in 2017. Like Alqunun, she had set her sights on Australia and reached out for help on social media.

"If my family come, they will kill me," she said in a video archived on Twitter. "If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead. Please help me." Instead, she was reportedly "dragged onto a plane from Manila to Riyadh with her mouth taped shut and her arms and legs bound." She was reportedly taken to a detention center in the Saudi capital and little more regarding her location or condition is known.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sasha Ingber is a reporter on NPR's breaking news desk, where she covers national and international affairs of the day.