A Saudi teen who’s barricaded herself in her Bangkok hotel room fearing for her life if she’s sent home, has been assured she won’t be deported.
Thai officials vowed Monday not to deport Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, the daughter of a senior Saudi government official, who claims her family has threatened to kill her for renouncing Islam.
She barricaded herself into a hotel room inside Bangkok airport Monday morning to stop officials from putting her on a flight back to Kuwait, where she said her family and Saudi officials would be waiting for her.
“My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait,” she told Reuters. “My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”
After she highlighted her plight on social media, there was widespread condemnation of the efforts to deport Qunun.
“She is now under the sovereignty of Thailand. No one and no embassy can force her to go anywhere,” Surachate Hakparn, Thailand's chief of immigration police, said Monday. “We will talk to her and do whatever she requests. Since she escaped trouble to seek our help… we will not send anyone to their death.”
Surachate also confirmed that Saudi officials had alerted the Thai authorities of Qunun’s arrival.
The U.N. also confirmed their officials had finally been granted access to the teenager, though it would not share details of the meeting.
However, Qunun’s father, Mohammed al-Qunun, has now arrived in Thailand to intervene in the situation, a development which “worried and scared me a lot,” the teenager said on Twitter.
Qunun fled Kuwait on Saturday while she and her family were visiting the Gulf country. She arrived in the Thai capital on Saturday on her way to Australia, where she was planning to seek asylum. She was met off the plane by a Saudi official who seized her passport.
She was then denied entry to Thailand by the authorities there.
“We acknowledged this and checked her paperwork. She had a passport but no return ticket, no travel plan, and no destination or hotel reservation in Thailand … so per airport security procedures, immigration denied her entry,” Surachate said.
She was then told she would be put on a flight back to Kuwait on Monday morning but fearing for her safety she refused to open the door in her transit zone hotel room when officials attempted to put her on the flight.
“I am Rahaf … I am in the hotel, I need a country to protect me as soon as possible. I am seeking asylum,” Qunun said in a video posted on social media.
Why is she seeking asylum?
The teenager has renounced Islam, in a country where such an act is technically punishable by death, Qunun decided to flee her family.
"They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism. They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn't want to,” she told the New York Times.
Qunun also has to abide by Saudi’s male guardianship laws, which states that all women need a male relative's permission to work, travel, marry, open a bank account, or even leave prison.
Is she safe in Thailand?
While the Thai authorities have said that Qunun will not be sent back if her life is in danger, the country’s authorities have a record of deporting refugees, as Sunai Phasuk, senior Thai researcher at Human Rights Watch, points out.
Thailand is also not a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention and provides no legal protection to asylum seekers — although there are more than 100,000 refugees in the country.
However, Melissa Fleming, head of communications at the U.N. refugee agency, said Qunun was protected under international law. “Non-refoulement is an international principle that prevents States from expelling or returning persons to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened,” Fleming tweeted. “The principle of non-refoulement is recognized as customary international law, and is also enshrined in Thailand’s other treaty obligations.”
One Australian politician said her government should step in to help Qunun. “Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun fears for her life and is facing deportation to Saudi Arabia, but we can help. We understand she has a visa and needs emergency travel documents to be brought safely here,” Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said in a statement Monday.
Cover: This handout picture taken and released by Thai Immigration Bureau on January 7, 2019 shows 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun being escorted by the Thai immigration officer and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials at the Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok. - Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, seeking asylum has left Bangkok airport 'under the care' of the UN refugee agency, a Thai official said Monday, following her desperate plea against deportation. (Photo by - / Thai Immigration Bureau / AFP) (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)