Five things you need to know about Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, the Saudi teen fleeing her family

Five things you need to know about Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, the Saudi teen fleeing her family

Teen said she will be killed if she returns to her family and Saudi Arabia

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Alqunun says she is fleeing abuse by her family and wants asylum in Australia.
Photo: AFP

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the Saudi Arabian teenager has been through a whirlwind of a jouney since she fled her family while on holiday with them in Kuwait.

The 18-year-old boarded a flight from Kuwait to Bangkok, where she hoped to catch another plane to Australia to seek asylum there. Rahaf was trying desperately to avoid being sent back to her home country, Saudi Arabia, where she believes she will be killed. 

Rahaf used Twitter to make people around the world aware of case.  She sparked international media attention when she barricaded herslef in her Bangkok airport hotel room and live-tweeted updates. She is now under UN protection in Thailand, amid claims that Australia's government have cancelled her tourist visa but is carefully considering her refugee plea. 

Here's five things you need to know about the case so far: 

Who is Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, the Saudi teen who's locked herself in a Thai hotel room, and what's happening to her?

1. Who is Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun and why was she trying to flee Saudi Arabia?

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is an 18-year-old student from Hail, in northern Saudi Arabia.

She has described her life in that country "like a prison" and has suffered years of unrelenting abuse at the hands of her family. 

Rahaf now believes her family would try to kill as she has renounced Islam.

"I can't make my own decisions," she said in an interview. "Even about my own hair I can't make decisions." She said her family locked her up for months after she cut her hair.

Rahaf said that when she was 16, she tried to kill herself. When her family did not seek help for her, she said, she started planning her escape. However, according to Saudi Arabia's tough laws, even adult women in the kingdom need the approval of a male guardian to travel. 

The teen's case comes at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

Her chance for freedom came when she was on holiday with her family in Kuwait, a country that does not have the same restrictions on women. 

On Saturday, she caught a plane to Thailand, in hopes of carrying on to Australia to seek asylum there. Things did not go as she had planned. She says an official had taken her passport, telling her that he would get her a visa to Thailand. But her passport had not been returned. Then, she was picked up by Thai immigration authorities for not having papers. 

Saudi teen seeking asylum in Australia locks herself in Thai hotel room; fears death if deported to Saudi

2. How did word of her plight spread, and what is being done to help? 

Rahaf took to Twitter to raise awareness about her case. She barricaded herslelf in her hotel in a Bangkok passenger transit zone in the airport and and live-tweeted her plea for asylum in either Canada, United States, Australia or Britain; and called for the United Nations to help. She was due to be on a plane to Kuwait on Monday at 11am local time. Some netizens on Twitter called for the passengers of the flight to refuse to be seated to stop it from taking off. But Rahaf wasn't on that flight.

This eventually sparked international media attention, after human rights advocates mounted a global social media campaign, asking Thai immigration officials to let her remain in Bangkok. They did.

“Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send someone back to die,” said the country’s immigration chief, Major Generak Surachate Hakparn. “We will take care of her as best as we can.”

After meeting Rahaf and officials from the United Nations refugee agency Monday afternoon, General Surachate allowed her to leave the airport with agency representatives. They will take up to 10 days to process her request for refugee status and find a country that will accept her.

Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Thailand has also denied reports that Riyadh had asked for her to be sent home.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not asked for her extradition. The embassy considers this issue a family matter,” the embassy said in a post on Twitter.

UPDATED: Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun's father has arrived in Bangkok amid international effort to save her from deportation

3. Her father and brother have arrived in Bangkok - what does this mean for the teen? 

Rahaf's father and brother, of whom she is deathly afraid, have arrived in Bangkok and said they want to meet her. 

But they will have to wait and see whether the UN refugee agency will allow them to see her, immigration chief Surachate Hakpan said.

“The father is now here in Thailand and that’s a source of concern,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia told Reuters. “We have no idea what he is going to do ... whether he will try to find out where she is and go harass her. We don’t know whether he is going to try to get the embassy to do that.”

Lawmakers and activists in Australia and Britain urged their governments to grant Rahaf asylum. She is staying in a Bangkok hotel while the UNHCR processes her application for refugee status, before she can seek asylum in a third country.

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4. How online activism kept the teen safe

Rahaf's friend, Nourah Alharbi told The Guardian: "Yesterday, they [social media supporters] made the difference in Rahaf's life. You saved Rahaf's life yesterday: the people, the media." 

Alharbi herself fled Saudi Arabia after suffering abuse from her family. She is now based in Sydney, Australia, where she is seeking asylum. She has kept close contact with Rahaf throughout the ordeal. 

Rahaf's story echoes that of Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman who in April 2017, was sent back to Saudi Arabia from the Philippines against her will. She has not been heard from publically since. 

“She didn’t get that [social media] support and that’s why she’s in Saudi Arabia now – she’s disappeared,” Alharbi said.

Who is Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi and what happened to him?

5. What happens next? 

The case is still ongoing and could take some time to reach a conclusion.

“It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” UNHCR’s Thailand representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis said in a statement.

“We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back (Rahaf) against her will and are extending protection to her,” he said.

In Australia, a senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, called on her government, through social media, to issue Rahaf an emergency travel document so she can fly to Australia to seek asylum. The Australian government said it was monitoring the case closely. A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said “the claims made by Ms Al-Qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning.”

A woman in Britain had launched an online petition calling on Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to grant Rahaf asylum and issue her an emergency travel document. Within hours of launching the petition it had secured thousands of signatures.

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1 comment

Kashif Adeel

12:00pm

I am happy with Government of Thailand and UNHCR Thailand for being so kind to Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun. She really deserves to be helped. I would request UNHCR to please provide protection to her from her family.
I would also request UNHCR Thailand to please consider those Pakistani Christian asylum seekers who fled from persecution in Pakistan and reached in Thailand for protection. They have been suffering in Thailand for years waiting for help from UNHCR in term to resettlement in third countries. I am one of the victims of religious persecution in Pakistan. I left my home country Pakistan due to life threats by extremists. I reached in Thailand with family in Dec 2013. Since then I have been waiting for UNHCR to help me and protect my family but unfortunately UNHCR Thailand didn't believe my testimony of persecution. UNHCR have not only refused my claim for refugee status but also closed my file of asylum. I would request YOUNGPOST to make UNHCR realize about my persecution that I faced in Pakistan. I have put application in UNHCR office six months ago for re-open my asylum case and grant me refugee status I deserve but I have not yet heard from UNHCR Thailand. I have never ever received any kind of help from UNHCR. UNHCR did not even provide due human rights to my family. I have a lot share with you if you need. Please contact me through email. my email kashifadeel2001@yahoo.com