Saudi woman 'given refugee status'

Rahaf al-Qunun: Dad of Saudi refugee arrives in Bangkok Thailand | Daily Star

A Saudi woman's ongoing bid to flee her country via Thailand this week threw the kingdom's male guardianship system into the worldwide limelight, setting in motion a showdown between Saudi Arabia's restrictions on women and the United Nations' asylum process.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is now being evaluated by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to assess her need for global protection, a process that usually takes months.

The Australian government previously said it would carefully consider granting a visa to Qunun if she is found to be a refugee by the United Nations.

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.

Alqunun was planning to fly to Australia on a tourist visa and seek asylum but detained at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on January 6.

In Saudi Arabia, she would not be able to travel overseas without the permission of a male guardian, so Qanun took the opportunity during a family visit to Kuwait and boarded a flight to Bangkok with the intention of reaching Australia.

Ms Alqunun is now in the care of the UNHCR, who will decide if the visit will be allowed.

The U.N. refugee agency on Tuesday said it was investigating Qunun's case after she fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her if she were sent back to Saudi Arabia. We have no idea what he is going to do ... whether he will try to find out where she is and go harass her.

Within 36 hours it prompted Thailand's government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, plotted an escape from what she describes as persistent abuse and oppression by family members in Saudi Arabia.

Thai authorities initially said Qunun would be sent back, but they abruptly changed course as the story pinballed across social media.

The UNHCR has now assessed her case and found she is a refugee.

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Qunun said on Twitter that she was "scared" because her father arrived in Thailand yesterday, but that her passport had been returned to her.

Apostasy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

Thailand is not a signatory to a United Nations convention on refugees, and asylum seekers are typically deported or wait years to be resettled in third countries.

In some cases, Saudi authorities were involved in forcing women to return to their families and in other cases, local authorities suspected the women of seeking asylum and deported them, the activist said.

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

Dubai-based human rights lawyer Rahda Stirling told 9 News that Alqunun's life could be in danger if she is repatriated to Saudi Arabia.

It also said the embassy had made contact with her father, a senior regional government official in the kingdom, "to inform him on her situation".

Thai immigration chief Surachet Hakparn speaks outside the Saudi embassy after a meeting with Saudi officials in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Women in Saudi Arabia are subject to male guardianship laws, which mean they need a male relative's permission to work, travel, marry, open a bank account, or even leave prison.

At around 5pm on Sunday, she was taken out of her room by Thai officials but later allowed to return.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the activist said there had been instances where Saudi women runaways were stopped by authorities in Hong Kong or the Philippines en route to Australia or New Zealand.

Baloch noted the power of social media in making her plight a matter that officials could not ignore.

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