Saudi teen's father arrives in Thailand as Australia says it would consider asylum

| 09.01,19. 02:49 AM |

Saudi teen's father arrives in Thailand as Australia says it would consider asylum

Photo: The Department of Home Affairs will consider Ms Alqunun's asylum application if she is deemed a genuine refugee. (AP: Supplied

Saudi teenager Rahaf Alqunun "was terrified" as officials in Bangkok tried to get her onto a flight to Kuwait, says an ABC journalist who was barricaded with the young asylum seeker inside an airport hotel room.

Ms Alqunun, 18, flew into Thailand from Kuwait, saying 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.

The 18-year-old then barricaded herself inside her room at an airport hotel, and requested to speak to the United Nations refugee office.

Following negotiations overnight Monday, Ms Alqunun is now under the protection of the United Nations.

On Tuesday night (Australian time), the Department of Home Affairs said it had called on the Thai authorities and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assess Ms Alqunun's claim as soon as possible.

The department said it would consider Ms Alqunun's application for asylum if she was found to be a genuine refugee.

Later in the evening Thailand's Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakpal said Ms Alqunun's father had arrived in Bangkok and wanted to meet his daughter. Her brother had come with him.

"The father and brother want to go and talk to Rahaf but the UN will need to approve such talk," he said.

Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson said he was concerned about the father's arrival.

"We have no idea what he is going to do … whether he will try to find out where she is and go harass her, he said.

"We don't know whether he is going to try to get the embassy to do that."

Officials tried to get her on a flight back to Kuwait

Sophie McNeill is an ABC Four Corners journalist who is on leave working on a book. She became involved in the story researching her book and was inside the room as officials tried to get Ms Alqunun on a flight back to Kuwait on Monday.

McNeill said it became clear at about 9:00am (local time) authorities "would do everything they could to get her on that 11:15am flight on Kuwait Airways".

"The threat was she would go back to Saudi Arabia from there, because she does have family in Kuwait and has spent time there too," she explained.

"So they were knocking on her door and there was a Kuwaiti Airways representative telling her that she had no choice, but had to get on this flight.

"And she made the decision that she was not going to do that and she did barricade herself in the room.

"She was terrified."

Thai authorities later relented, deciding not to send Ms Alqunun back to Saudi Arabia, and McNeill said she had been moved to a secret location.

"And it is safe," she said.

Teenager 'particularly terrified' by reports father had arrived

McNeill said she had heard earlier reports the teenager's father had arrived in Thailand, but "we haven't seen any proof of that yet".

"[Ms Alqunun] hasn't travelled much, English is her second language and she is still learning English, it has been a very emotional experience," she said.

"She didn't eat all day yesterday, she didn't sleep for about three days.

"It is confusing for her, and she is particularly terrified about by these reports that her father has landed in Bangkok."

Ms Alqunun's friend, known only as Noura, told PM while her exact location was unknown, she was in a "safe place" and "fine for now".

"She hopes she can go outside of Thailand very soon," she said.

"She just want to go to a safe place — any kind of safe place, any country."

She said she thought that Australian authorities had cancelled Ms Alqunun's tourist visa.

In a statement, the Home Affairs Department said a visitor visa did not have a bearing on an application for a humanitarian visa.

Noura, who met Ms Alqunun through online feminist groups, said she hoped the attention her case had received would shine a light on the plight of Saudi women.

"I know what's happening there for those women... It's strict clothes and they don't have any rights," she said.

"So I hope what's happened to Rahaf, it will help them to take more rights."

'The world is watching more closely'

Ms Alqunun's plight bears similarities to the case of 24-year-old Saudi woman Dina Ali Lasloom, who sought asylum in Australia in 2017.

Ms Lasloom had arrived in Manila from Kuwait, and also wanted to travel on to Australia when she recorded a video message pleading for help.

The message sparked a social media campaign, dubbed "Save Dina Ali", but she was returned to Riyadh and nobody from outside Saudi Arabia has heard from her since.

"This is why Rahaf's case is really quite incredible [and] that the world is now watching closely, I think, much closer than they were, what Saudi Arabia is doing to its own citizens," McNeill said.

Cases of young women trying to flee deeply conservative Saudi Arabia are likely to become more common, according to Ben Rich, a lecturer in international relations and Middle East politics at Curtin University.

He says despite a recent focus on emerging women's rights in the country, "women still remain extremely in the place of second-class citizenry".

"Much of [women's] legal and economic autonomy is still captured under the guardianship laws, in which they need to have a male guardian — be that their father, their husband, or even in some cases their son — make important legal decisions that they have no ability over," he said.

"This is a real demonstration of that.

"Her claims that she's been abused physically and mentally is not particularly unexpected under those types of conditions."


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