Thai officials promise not to deport Saudi woman seeking asylum in Australia

| 08.01,19. 04:38 AM |

Thai officials promise not to deport Saudi woman seeking asylum in Australia

Thai authorities have announced their country will not send a distressed Saudi teenager who is attempting to seek asylum in Australia back to Saudi Arabia.

Rahaf Alqunun, 18, flew from Kuwait and said she had a ticket onwards to Australia where she had hoped to seek asylum over fears her family would kill her for renouncing Islam.

But when she arrived in Bangkok she said a Saudi diplomat met her at the airport and tricked her into handing over her passport and ticket, saying he would secure a visa.

Ms Alqunun then barricaded herself inside her room at an airport hotel, and requested to speak to the United Nations refugee office.

After initially being blocked by the Thai Government, representatives from the UNHCR were able to access and interview the 18-year-old.

Ms Alqunun has now left her room and is in the custody of Thai immigration officials.

A UNHCR representative said he had been given assurances Ms Alqunun would not be sent back to Saudi Arabia.

Before the meeting, in a video message posted to social media on Monday, Ms Alqunun could be heard negotiating with authorities from her room.

"I'm not going to open the door," she tweeted.

"I want UN [United Nations Refugee Agency]."

An injunction to prevent her deportation to Kuwait was initially dismissed by the Bangkok criminal court on Monday.

But a Kuwait Airlines flight headed for Saudi Arabia that Ms Alqunun was meant to board left Bangkok without her.

Afterwards, Thailand's Immigration Police Chief, Surachet Hakpal, said in a news conference that Ms Alqunun was safe from deportation.

"We will talk to her and do whatever she requests. Since she escaped trouble to seek our help, we are the Land of Smiles, we will not send anyone to their death," he said.

"We won't do that, we will adhere to the human rights principles under the rule of law.

"If she prefers to travel to Australia, we will coordinate with the (Australian) embassy for her.

"But if she wants to remain in Thailand, we will have to talk to the UNHCR for the UNHCR to accept her as an asylum seeker in order to consider her refugee status."

However, the Thai Government is giving mixed messages.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has said the matter will be worked out between Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

Government should 'do everything they can'

Ms Alqunun made a plea for protection from a number of countries including Australia, though her connections to the nation are unclear.

Activists have urged the Government to support Ms Alqunun in her bid for asylum in Australia.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young echoed the sentiment, saying the young woman should be issued with emergency travel documents.

"I am, and many others are, fearful of what will happen to her if she returns [to Saudi Arabia]," Ms Hanson-Young told PM.

"I implore the Government to do everything they can to help bring this young woman to Australia."

However, Australia has no legal imperative to intervene, experts said.

Despite having a ticket onwards to Australia, a tourist visa would not necessarily "enliven Australia's protection obligations" toward Ms Alqunun, said Professor Jane McAdam from the University of New South Wales' Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.

"Thailand isn't itself a signatory to the Refugee Convention," Professor McAdam said.

"But it is a signatory to a number of international human rights treaties that similarly require it not to send people to places where they are at risk of serious harm and human rights abuses.

"Australia shares that obligation, so certainly from a moral perspective it would be appropriate for Australia to urge Thailand not to violate that fundamental principle of international law."

UNHCR Communication Chief Melissa Fleming also tweeted that Thailand was obligated to protect Ms Alqunun.

The Federal Government has not responded to the ABC's request for comment on the case.

Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong said the matter is concerning and her office is seeking further information from the Government.

'If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead'

The ABC has received a video message from the teenager, to be broadcast in the event she disappears.

The situation is strikingly similar to one that unfolded in Manila airport in April 2017.

Dina Ali Lasloom, a then-24-year-old Saudi woman, had arrived in Asia from Kuwait and also wanted to travel on to Australia when she recorded a video message pleading for help.

"They took my passport and locked me [up] for 13 hours, just because I'm a Saudi woman, with the collaboration of the Saudi embassy," she said in the video.

"If my family come, they will kill me. If I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead.

"Please help me. I'm recording this video to help me."

The message sparked a social media campaign, dubbed "Save Dina Ali", but she was returned to Riyadh — and that is the last anyone outside Saudi Arabia officially heard from, or of, her.

Saudi Arabia remains one of the world's most repressive countries for women.

Under the "guardianship" system, women are forbidden from travelling without a male escort — a father, uncle, husband, brother or son.


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