ADELAIDE, Australia – A Saudi teenager fleeing her family is eligible for resettlement in Australia, the country's home affairs department reported Wednesday.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, flew to Bangkok Saturday to escape what she said was an abusive family. When the Thai authorities tried to deport her to Kuwait, where her family was, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel and pleaded on Twitter to see a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The turnaround in her case, from threatened deportation to possible resettlement in a third country, has been largely attributed to a social media campaign that the young woman and some of her friends have largely launched on Twitter.
"Happy!" Al Ryunun on Wednesday after the Australian announcement. "The whole world knew about the situation of Saudi women and the brutality and oppression of the government! Our message, girls, has arrived."
Her plight received wide attention when she documented every step in her detention and interactions with the Thai authorities and encouraged them to finally grant UNHCR access to her. She left the airport after two days in detention from the refugee office, which said she would consider her request for refugee status.
In comments to the Thai authorities caught video and widespread, Saudi attorneys in Bangkok, Abdalelah Mohammed al-Shuaibi, begged airport officials to confiscate her phone instead of her passport.
Alqunun, who comes from Hail in northwestern Saudi Arabia, said she feared for her life if she were to be returned to her family. Her friends said she had been abused.
Thai officials say Alqunun's father arrived hoping to see her, but she refused and refused to meet him.
"He wanted to make sure his daughter was safe," said Surachate Hakparn, head of the Thailand immigration office. Her father, he added, denied having physically abused or forced her to marry.
"He wants to take his daughter home and now his wife is seriously ill because she is very worried about the daughter – this is all a family problem," he added.
The Australian decision does not grant Alqunun the automatic refugee status in Australia, but it makes a positive asylum decision much more likely.
"The Interior Ministry will deal with this referral in the usual way, as with all referrals by the UNHCR," the Interior Ministry said in a statement by e-mail.
Human Rights Watch, which Alqunun advocated during the drama, welcomed the decision of Australia.
"Barely two days ago she was barricaded in a hotel room that fights for her life – and now we see this beautiful and astonishing turn of events," said Phil Robertson, Asia's deputy director of the group. "What's important is getting her safe, so Australia really has to move quickly to get her out of Thailand."
After Alqunun left the airport, she was transferred to a hotel in Bangkok, where U.N. staff members were expected to interview her and process her claim.
A spokeswoman in Bangkok for the UNHCR has neither confirmed nor denied that Alqunun was granted refugee status and said it was unlikely that the agency would provide further updates on her case.
In a Tuesday statement, UNHCR said it continued to investigate its case "as part of a process to assess its need for international protection."
"We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not return Ms Alqunun against her will and extend the protection for her," said the UNHCR representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vincentiis. "It can take several days to process the case and determine the next steps," he added. "For reasons of protection and confidentiality, we are not in a position to comment on the details of individual cases."
UNHCR states that refugees and asylum seekers seeking international protection may not be returned to their country of origin.
Alqunun's reference to the Australian Interior Department suggests that she has been granted refugee status by the U.N.
"The Australian refugee innovation policy has two main streams, either through government humanitarian programs" or through the UNHCR referral program, "said Nurmuhammad Said Majid, an Australian immigration consultant. "Given the sensitivity of this problem, the process can still be given priority and processed faster than usual."
All individuals entering Australia through these two programs have to undergo safety, character and health checks. In the case of the 18-year-old, some of those checks could be speeded up or completed on arrival in Australia, he added.
Even before the referral, Australian officials had made positive comments about the case of Alqunun. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp, Health Minister Greg Hunt said they would consider a humanitarian visa for Alqunun if she was granted refugee status.
Australia's migration policy has increasingly come under attack in recent years, especially the policy to house illegal immigrants in stark offshore camps. However, strict legislation only affects those who try to enter external legal channels. The case of Alqunun is different because it has been referred by the UNHCR.
"For women at risk of suffering damage in their own country or by an individual or group, Australia is actually one of the most hospitable countries with the most promising resettlement program," Majid said. "Eighteen-year-old Alqunun would probably fit into that category."
Other Saudi women have tried in recent years to flee their families, have brought abuse, but have been less successful than Alqunun. In 2017, Dina Lasloom, 24, tried to apply for asylum in Australia in the same way, escaped Saudi Arabia's guardianship laws when she was stopped at an airport in Manila. She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia and has not been heard publicly since.
According to this system of guardianship, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry or be released from prison. Sometimes the consent of a male is also necessary to work. The restrictions last until death.
This system, says human rights activists, makes it very difficult for people like Alqunun to get protection from unlawful situations without resorting to drastic measures, such as secretly fleeing to a third country without permission.
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Wilawan Watcharasak law in Bangkok and Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.