Saudi woman held at Bangkok airport to be sent back, fears death if repatriated

2019-01-07 10:02
This screen grab from a video via the Twitter account of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun. (AFP)

This screen grab from a video via the Twitter account of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun. (AFP)

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A Saudi woman held at Bangkok airport said she would be killed if she was repatriated by Thai immigration officials, who confirmed the 18-year-old was denied entry to the country on Sunday.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun will be sent back on Monday, Thai authorities said, after she made a desperate plea for asylum and for other passengers to help protest her deportation.

The incident comes against the backdrop of intense scrutiny of Saudi Arabia over its investigation and handling of the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which has renewed criticism of the kingdom's rights record.

The 18-year-old said she had planned to travel to Australia and seek asylum there, and feared she would be killed if she was repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her during transit on Sunday.

Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said that Qunun was currently "waiting for boarding, our immigration officer and Saudi Arabian embassy officials are with her".

"She bought the ticket herself yesterday, she is waiting to board (the flight to) Saudi Arabia," he said of the Kuwait Airways flight to Kuwait due to depart at 04:15.

Asked if she was seeking asylum, he said "we do not know but if anyone wants to seek asylum, they have to wait for those countries to reply".

Qunun told AFP she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived in Suvarnabhumi airport and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by Human Rights Watch.

"They took my passport," she told AFP, adding that her male guardian had reported her for travelling "without his permission".

Physical, psychological abuse

Qunun said she was trying to flee her family, who subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. 

"My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair," she said, adding that she is certain she will be imprisoned if she is sent back.

"I'm sure 100% they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail," she said, adding that she was "scared" and "losing hope".

Qunun was stopped from entering Thailand when she flew in from Kuwait on Sunday, Thailand's immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told AFP.

"She had no further documents such as return ticket or money," he said, adding that Rahaf was currently in an airport hotel.

"She ran away from her family to avoid marriage and she is concerned she may be in trouble returning to Saudi Arabia. We sent officials to take care of her now," he said.

He added that Thai authorities had contacted the "Saudi Arabia embassy to coordinate".

'Can't escape' 

But Qunun disputed his account, saying that she was only in transit to seek asylum in Australia, and was accosted by Saudi and Kuwaiti embassy representatives when she arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport.

She took to Twitter to plead her case, creating a profile with an Arabic bio that reads "I just want to survive".

During a video livestream showing her walking around a carpeted hallway, Qunun spoke in Arabic about how her father had told Saudi embassy officials she was a "psychiatric patient" who had to be returned, even though she had "an Australian visa".

"I can't escape the airport," she said in the live video. "I tried but there's a security (official) watching me."

In a sign of growing desperation over the last few hours, the woman live tweeted barricading her hotel room door with furniture.

"I ask the... government of Thailand... to stop my deportation to Kuwait," she said on Twitter.

"I ask the police in Thailand to start my asylum process."

Shortly before the scheduled departure, Qunun posted a plea for people within "the transit area in Bangkok to protest against deporting me".

"Please I need u all," she wrote. "I'm shouting out for help of humanity."

'Family problem'

Immigration head Surachate said Qunun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia by Monday morning.

"It's a family problem," he said of the case.

But Human Rights Watch said Thai authorities must allow the teenager to make a refugee claim with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

"Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will," said Michael Page, HRW deputy Middle East director.

"Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation, and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee."

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said Qunun "faces grave harm if she is forced back to Saudi Arabia", and that Thailand should allow her to see the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and apply for asylum.

"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," he said.

The UNHCR said that according to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum seekers cannot be returned to their country of origin if their life is under threat.

"The UN Refugee Agency has been following developments closely and has been trying to seek access from the Thai authorities to meet with Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, to assess her need for international protection," it said in a statement on Monday.

Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d'affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, acknowledged the woman's father had contacted the diplomatic mission for "help" to bring her back.

But in an interview with Saudi-owned channel Rotana Khalijial, he denied that her passport had been seized and that embassy officials were present inside the airport.

Saudi Arabia has come under fierce criticism following the murder of dissident journalist Khashoggi inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate on October 2 - a case that stunned the world.

The ultra-conservative kingdom has long been attacked for imposing some of the world's toughest restrictions on women.

That includes a guardianship system that allows men to exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on behalf of their female relatives.

In addition to facing punishment for "moral" crimes, women can also become the target of "honour killings" at the hands of their families, activists say.

Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was stopped in transit in the Philippines in April 2017 when she attempted to flee her family.

Read more on:    saudi arabia  |  thailand
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