Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, was on holiday with her family in Kuwait when she fled to Bangkok, hoping to make it onward to Australia to seek asylum.
Thai authorities have detained her at an airport hotel, and had planned to send her back to Kuwait on a flight departing on Monday at 11.15 am local time. At the time of the plane’s departure, a friend posting on Twitter on her behalf said she remained in her hotel room, which is inside the airport’s transit area past security and immigration checkpoints.
On Saturday, January 5, Alqunun launched a Twitter campaign detailing her detention, posting a photocopied photo of her passport to support proof of her identity. On Monday morning, hours before her scheduled deportation, she posted several videos of herself formally requesting asylum and saying she will not leave her room without a meeting with the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR.
“Rahaf faces grave harm if she is forced to return to Saudi Arabia, so she should be allowed to see UNHCR and apply for asylum, and Thailand should agree to follow whatever the UN refugee agency decides,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who has been in touch with Alqunun. “She’s desperately fearful of her family, including her father, who is a senior government official, and given Saudi Arabia’s long track record of looking the other way in so-called honour violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be ignored.”
Surachet Hakparn, head of Thailand’s immigration bureau, told reporters on Sunday that Alqunun tried to enter Thailand but did not have the appropriate documents to get a visa upon arrival, and so had to be repatriated. In a statement posted to the Twitter page of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok said that Alqunun was stopped by authorities in Thailand for “violating the laws” and that the embassy has been in “constant contact” with her family.
The dramatic turn of events and Alqunun’s pleas for help echoed those of other women who have tried to flee the abusive or restrictive conditions imposed on them in Saudi Arabia. In 2017, Dina Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman, was similarly attempting to seek asylum in Australia when she was stopped in an airport in Manila, Philippines. She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia and has not been publicly heard from since.
In Saudi Arabia, women need a male relative’s approval to depart the country - restrictions that last from birth until death. Alqunun could also face possible criminal charges in Saudi Arabia for “parental disobedience” and for harming the reputation of Saudi Arabia by publicly appealing for help. Human Rights Watch in a statement pointed out that this system of guardianship makes it extremely difficult for victims of violence to seek protection or legal recourse for domestic abuse.
Thailand has also recently detained a former Bahraini soccer player, 25-year old Hakeem al-Araibi, who had been granted refugee status in Australia after speaking out against a powerful Bahraini official. He was detained on November 27, 2018 after arriving in Bangkok for his honeymoon. He remains in custody as he awaits a court decision on Bahrain’s extradition request.