Australia Considers Visa for Saudi Teen As UN Grants Refugee Status

By Mimi Nguyen-ly

The U.N. refugee agency has referred a young Saudi woman to Australia for consideration on Jan. 9 following an assessment which deemed that she is a refugee.

The father and brother of Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, arrived in Thailand on Jan. 8, as the Australian government seriously considers granting the woman a humanitarian visa.

The Department of Home Affairs said in a statement that it will consider the referral from the U.N. in the usual way, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC) reported.

Alqunun will be subject to a number of checks including character and security assessments to see whether she qualifies for a humanitarian visa, according to the ABC.

Alqunun was planning to fly to Australia on a tourist visa and seek asylum but was detained at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on Jan. 6.

Father and Brother Land in Thailand

She has been under U.N. protection since Jan. 7 after being allowed to enter Thailand.

A young woman who said she had helped Alqunun escape told The Australian Alqunun had opted for the Australian tourist visa because it was one of the few offered online.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt told ABC TV on Jan. 8 the government had successfully requested the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to process her case quickly.

“Pending the outcome of that if she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa,” Hunt said.

Alqunun’s father, a Saudi government official, and brother arrived in Bangkok on the evening of Jan. 8 and immediately demanded to see her.

Thai Immigration Chief Surachata Hakpan said the two will have to seek permission from the U.N.’s refugee agency before gaining access to Alqunun.

“The father and brother want to go and talk to Rahaf but the U.N. will need to approve such talk,” General Surachate told reporters according to AAP.

‘He Will Kill Me’

Alqunun’s plea for asylum made international headlines when she began sending Twitter messages on Jan. 6 after being detained at Bangkok Airport. Her Twitter account has attracted more than 66,000 followers in less than 48 hours.

Thai officials had tried to force her take a flight to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia scheduled for the morning of Jan. 7. However, Alqunun said on Twitter that she feared for her life if she would return to Saudi Arabia, where she had originally fled from her family. She also said she had renounced her religion, Islam.

Until recently, Alqunun had been living with her parents and six siblings in Ha’il, Saudi Arabia, where her father is a government official according to the Daily Mail.

Rahaf said she had been suffering beatings and emotional abuse from her family members according to media reports.

When she and her family traveled to visit her family in Kuwait, Rahaf seized the opportunity to flee with help from a friend by booking flights from Kuwait to Thailand, then Thailand to Australia. She took a taxi to the airport in Kuwait around 4 a.m. local time after making sure her father was asleep.

“I’m [sic] rahaf mohmed, formally seeking a refugee status to any country that would protect me from getting harmed or killed due to leaving my religion and torture from my family,” she said in a Twitter post dated Jan. 6 from a hotel room at Bangkok Airport where she had barricaded herself in.

She told The Daily Mail, “When I came to Thailand someone told me that he will help me to get a visa for Thailand in the airport. After that he took my passport. After one hour he came back with five or six people, I think they were police or something and then they told me my father is so angry and I must go back to Saudi Arabia. They know I ran away from him.”

Rahaf said she had been suffering beatings and emotional abuse from her family members according to media reports.

“I am scared. My brother told me that he’s waiting with some Saudi men. They will take me to Saudi Arabia and my father will kill me because he is so angry,” she said. “He will kill me. My family do this, I know them. They kept telling me they will kill me if I do something wrong—they say that since I was a child.”

Her story grabbed the attention of foreign governments and the UNHCR. As pressure grew, with concern expressed by Australian lawmakers, Germany’s ambassador to Thailand and human rights agencies, Thai officials agreed to allow U.N refugee officials to meet with her. They later entered her hotel room and took her into U.N. protection.

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun with Thai officials
Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 7, 2019. (Thailand Immigration Police via Reuters)

She later posted to Twitter on Jan. 8 that her passport had been returned and she felt safe under UNHCR protection.

According to 9 News, the Australian embassy had contacted the Thai government and the UNHCR’s Bangkok office to confirm Alqunun could apply for refugee status.

“The claims made by Ms Alqunun that she may be harmed, if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning,” a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said on Jan. 8.

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun walks with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok
Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun walks with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 7, 2019. (Thailand Immigration Police via Reuters)

Dubai-based human rights lawyer Rahda Stirling told 9 News that Alqunun’s life could be in danger if she is repatriated to Saudi Arabia.

“The fact is, now that she has criticized Saudi Arabia, Islam, her family, and ‘shamed the nation’—there is every reason at this point to fear that she could be jailed for many years and be subject to human rights violations and torture,” Stirling said in a statement.

“She has violated Saudi laws in seeking to travel without the permission of her male guardian and has now further violated a number of laws and outraged the regime. There are reports that she is receiving death threats and that Saudi men are calling for her to be hanged as an example to other would be ‘rebels.'”

Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Thailand on Jan.8 denied reports that Saudi Arabia had requested her extradition, according to Reuters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report