A Saudi Arabian teenager who was detained in Thailand after attempting to flee her allegedly abusive family will reportedly not be forcibly returned home after a viral social media campaign drew attention to her plight.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, was en route to Australia where she hoped to receive asylum but was stopped after arriving at the Bangkok airport for her flight transfer. According to Qunun, she was abducted after arrival in Thailand and had her passport confiscated by Saudi Arabian diplomatic staff, and was only able to escape being forcibly boarded onto a plane back home after locking herself inside her hotel room and demanding access to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.
General Surachate Hakparn, the head of Thailand’s immigration police, had initially told reporters that Qunun would be sent home to Saudi Arabia since she was “unsafe” without a male guardian, and claimed that she didn’t have a visa to continue on to Australia. But after Qunun tweeted about her plight from her hotel room and found support from other Saudi women and activists who had fled the country, Hakparn relented and agreed to arrange a safe house so that she could stay in Thailand until her asylum claim was processed.
“If she goes home it will be dangerous for her so Thailand is ready to help,” said the general. “We are working with the foreign affairs ministry and UNHCR and today we will allow her entry to Thailand. UNHCR is now taking care of her and working on her asylum claim.”
A friend of Qunun’s, 20-year-old Nourah Alharbi, said that the vast social media response had likely saved the teenager’s life.
“Yesterday, they [social media supporters] made the difference in Rahaf’s life. You saved Rahaf’s life yesterday: the people, the media,” she told The Guardian on Tuesday. “She couldn’t believe it. Today when I was calling her … [she said] she can see the thousands of messages, all of them supporting her. She’s terrified and stressed, and when she saw the messages it really made a difference for her.”
“Rahaf al-Qunun-mark my words,is going to start a revolution in Saudi Arabia.Go on social media now & watch accounts of so many young Saudis saying,“Rahaf,you’ve shown us,that we can do this! Rahaf, you have shown us,that we deserve to be free”
— Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) January 8, 2019
On behalf of Rahaf we, her friends, thank all of you guys for the tremendous support that Rahaf has never dreamed of.
You are the source of her power and she’s asking you “Don’t abandon me yet. I’m not safe yet, hopefully, I will be transferred to a safe country soon”
— Rahaf Mohammed رهف محمد (@rahaf84427714) January 8, 2019
Reuters also reported that the spontaneous Twitter campaign, dubbed #SaveRahaf, organized by a loose network of activists around the world, was influential in the Thai government reversing its decision to put her back on a plane to her family.
According to Alharbi, Australia cancelled the tourist visa on which Qunun had been traveling. A government source told The Australian that Qunun’s tourist visa had not been revoked, despite claims, but said she would be refused entry to Australia because the visa did not reflect the true reason for her visit. In a statement, the Saudi government said they had not demanded Qunun’s deportation, characterizing the case as a “family affair” under the “care and attention” of the embassy.
Meanwhile, Qunun’s father — a Saudi government official — and brother have arrived in Thailand and requested access to her, according to Nine News.
Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakpan said the men would have to wait to learn whether the UN’s refugee agency would allow a meeting.
Qunun is currently in the care of the UNHCR, who will send her to a third country if she is granted asylum status. The Australian Department of Home Affairs said they would “carefully consider” any application by the 18-year-old.
Watch asylum seeker 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun speak while barricaded in an airport hotel room: