A Saudi teenager has gone into hiding following Thailand’s promise not to deport her after she barricaded herself in a hotel room to avoid being sent back to her ‘abusive’ family.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, ran away from her family while they were on a trip to Kuwait three days ago and had flown to Thailand in the hope of reaching Australia to seek asylum.
But she has been at Bangkok airport since Saturday when she was barred from entry by Thai immigration officials who deny her claims that she was detained at the behest of the Saudi government.
The teenager was due to have been marched onto a flight back to Kuwait this morning. But fearing her family will kill her, she refused to board the plane, instead posting a clip on Twitter of her barricading her hotel door with a table, mattresses and a chair.
The UN refugee agency, given access to speak to her today, says she has left the airport under the care of Thai authorities, who have said she will not be deported against her wishes. She is to be housed in a ‘secure location’ having been temporarily admitted to the country for an evaluation.
In a tweet this afternoon, Rahaf, who fears retaliation from her family after she renounced Islam, said she was ‘scared’ after learning her father had arrived in Thailand – but that she was ‘safe’ with the UN and Thai authorities.
Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has gone into hiding following Thailand’s promise not to deport her after she barricaded herself in a hotel room to avoid being sent back to her ‘abusive’ family. She is pictured shaking hands with Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn after leaving her room today
Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun barricaded herself in a hotel room (pictured, today) at a Thai airport, using tables, chairs and mattresses in a bid to avoid deportation
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (left) finally left her hotel room after talks with the UN refugee agency. She is pictured with Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn (right) at Bangkok airport ahead of being taken to a ‘secure location’
In a sign of growing desperation during the night, Rahaf posted video of her barricading her hotel room door with furniture. If sent back, she said she will likely be imprisoned, and is ‘sure 100 percent’ her family will kill her, she said
In a tweet this afternoon, Rahaf, who fears retaliation from her family after she renounced Islam, said she was ‘scared’ after learning her father had arrived in Thailand – but that she was ‘safe’ with the UN and Thai authorities
In another tweet today, Rahaf revealed that her passport had been returned to her and included a picture of the travel document
She wrote: ‘Hey I’m Rahaf. My father just arrived as I heard [which] worried and scared me a lot and I want to go to another country that I seek asylum in.
‘But at least I feel [safe] now under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities. And I finally got my passport back.’
She has claimed she was tricked into giving up her passport on arrival in Bangkok – but the Saudi Foreign Ministry denied its embassy had seized the document and say she was stopped at the airport for violating Thai immigration laws.
Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at Bangkok’s Saudi embassy, has, however, acknowledged that the woman’s father had previously contacted them for ‘help’ to bring her back.
This morning, Bangkok’s Criminal Court dismissed an injunction request from a human rights lawyer to prevent her deportation.
But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees later said it had been granted access to the Saudi national to assess her need for international protection ‘and find an immediate solution for her situation’.
Rahaf fled her ‘abusive’ family while travelling in Kuwait, and had flown to Thailand in the hopes of reaching Australia to seek asylum. But she was stopped in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport by Kuwaiti and Saudi embassy officials, she said, and has since been held in an airport hotel awaiting deportation.
She said a Saudi official in the Thai airport confiscated her passport after her father reported her for travelling without her male ‘guardian’. He claimed she was mentally ill but failed to provide any evidence.
Saudi culture and guardianship policy requires women to have permission from a male relative to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment. The deeply conservative Muslim country lifted a ban on women drivers last year.
This morning, human rights lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman filed an injunction to block Rahaf’s deportation but it was rejected by Bangkok’s criminal court.
Rahaf (centre, today) said ‘I feel save now under UNHCR protection’ after holding talks with the UN refugee agency
UNHCR representative Giuseppe De Vincentiis (centre) was pictured walking into the transit hotel at the airport ahead of talks with Rahaf
Thailand’s Immigration Police chief Major General Surachate Hakparn (pictured today) said Rahaf will not be sent anywhere against her wishes
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, has been at Bangkok airport since Saturday when she was denied entry by Thai immigration officials, who deny her accusations that she was detained at the behest of the Saudi government
Rahaf made desperate appeals for help and repeated calls to speak to someone from the UN
Rahaf has said on Twitter that she fears her family will kill her if she is forced to return to them from Thailand
On Twitter, Rahaf had written of being in ‘real danger’ if forced to return to her family in Saudi Arabia, and has claimed in media interviews that she could be killed. She said she had renounced Islam and is fearful of her father’s retaliation
‘They dismissed the request,’ she told AFP. ‘They said we do not have enough evidence,’ she said, adding they planned to appeal.
A representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) met Qunun at the airport and was to discuss the case with Thai immigration officials.
‘We and UNHCR will talk to her and ask her what her wishes are, whether she wants to request asylum,’ Hakparn told a news conference.
He said Thai officials were following the law in initially refusing her entry, but added ‘if she is to be hurt or punished or killed, we will need to take into consideration human rights principles’.
Surachate also acknowledged for the first time Saudi embassy had alerted Thai authorities to Qunun’s arrival.
‘The Saudi Arabia embassy contacted the immigration police … and said that the girl had run away from her parents and they fear for her safety,’ he said.
‘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.’
Rahaf Mohammed al Qunun, 18, sent this selfie to MailOnline from the Bangkok airport hotel room in which she is being held. She believes she will be murdered by her family if she is deported
Rahaf accused Kuwait Airlines and the Saudi embassy of working together to take her passport when she arrived in Bangkok
The UNHCR said its representative had met her but would not comment on the details of the meeting or its outcome.
It said in a statement that Thailand had a responsibility not to expel or return anyone to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened.
‘This principle is recognised as customary international law, and is also enshrined in Thailand’s other treaty obligations,’ the UNHCR statement said.
Last night, speaking from an airport hotel room guarded by security officials, Rahaf told MailOnline: ‘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. 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.’
She, her parents, and her six siblings live in Ha’il in Saudi Arabia, where her father works as a government official. She says she has suffered beatings and emotional abuse from her family, at one point being locked in her room for six months for cutting her hair.
When they took a trip to visit family in Kuwait she made her escape, buying flights from Kuwait to Thailand and from Thailand to Australia with help from a friend, and taking a taxi to the airport at 4am after checking her father was asleep.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, had earlier tweeted: ‘I have been detained in an airport hotel. I will be forcibly repatriated tomorrow to Kuwait and then Saudi. There is an airport person who constantly follows me. I can’t even ask for protection or asylum in Thailand.’
She said: ‘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.’
In a text conversion on the messaging app Whatsapp, her father told an airport employee official Rahaf was mentally ill, but when challenged to provide evidence or documentation, he fell silent.
Rahaf demanded her passport back and asked to be allowed to fly to another country, but officials insisted she would be deported.
She said: ‘They kept telling me I can’t get a visa. The airline told me I have to stay here so I can go back to Kuwait. From Kuwait they [my family] will take me to Saudi Arabia.
‘They will kill me. I am so scared. I want to go to another country, and stay safe. I have a visa for Australia, I want to go there. I don’t know what I will do. I have to fight, because I don’t want to lose my life.’
Human Rights Watch has called on the Thai government to grant sanctuary to Rahaf, who they believe may be at ‘serious risk of harm’ if returned to her family.
The charity said no visa was necessary because Rahaf had not applied to enter Thailand because her passport was taken, along with her plane ticket to Australia – and that Thai authorities have prevented her from having access to UNHCR to make a refugee claim.
Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson told MailOnline: ‘As far as we can tell, her father is a prominent government official, I expect he’s going to be very, very harsh.
‘Certainly he’s senior enough to do whatever he wants to his daughter and nobody is going to raise a finger against him. There’s a long history of what they call ‘honour violence’.
‘I think she’s at serious risk. We’ve been pressing the UN to get in there. They need to go to the airport.’
Since her Kafkaesque imprisonment began, Rahaf has shared via Twitter her reasons for fleeing her family and the threatening behaviour of Saudi officials in Bangkok airport.
In a video, Rahaf is shown detained in an airport hotel in Bangkok with security officials preventing her from leaving the building
The 18-year-old has been appealing for aid from the United Nations refugee agency and anyone else who can help
She said: ‘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 percent they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail,’ she said, adding that she was ‘scared’ and ‘losing hope’.
In another tweet she said: ‘I have been threatened by several staff from the Saudi embassy and the Kuwaiti airlines, and they said ‘If you run, we will find you and kidnap you, then deal with you’ I really don’t know how they are going to behave in case I run.’
‘There is an airport person who constantly follows me. I can’t even ask for protection or asylum in Thailand. Thai police refuse to help me,’ she claimed in a separate tweet.
Q&A: The hurdles and obstacles Saudi women runaways face
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is the latest young Saudi woman to attempt to flee her family and seek asylum abroad. Her calls for help on Twitter have grabbed international attention and prompted Thai authorities to say they will not deport her back to her family.
With Saudi women runaways increasingly using social media to amplify their desperate pleas for help, here a look at the obstacles they face:
WHY ARE SOME SAUDI WOMEN FLEEING?
Alqunun has told rights groups and media she’s fleeing an abusive family and seeking greater freedoms abroad.
Saudi females who flee their families are almost always running away from abusive male relatives, often a father or brother. In a few of the cases, the women have also renounced Islam and claim they cannot return home. They fear they could be killed after publicly denouncing the faith and publicizing their identities online.
In other cases, a woman’s father might be barring from her marriage or forcing her into marriage. In other cases her salary is being confiscated, or she’s facing sexual or physical abuse.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The kingdom has granted women greater rights in recent years, like the right to drive, run and vote in local elections and play sports in school.
Ultimately, however, male guardianship laws remain in place. Under these laws, a woman must have her male guardian’s permission in order to obtain a passport, travel abroad or marry.
From childhood through adulthood , every Saudi woman passes from the control of one legal guardian to another, a male relative whose decisions or whims can determine the course of her life. Legal guardians are often a woman’s father or husband, but can also be a brother or her own son.
Although King Salman has tried to limit its scope, male permission is sometimes still demanded when a woman tries to rent an apartment, undergo elective medical procedures or open a bank account.
HOW OFTEN DO SAUDI WOMEN RUN AWAY?
There are no public statistics available for how many Saudi women try to flee abroad each year. The most recent statistics from the Ministry of Labor and Social Development show that 577 Saudi women tried to flee their homes within Saudi Arabia in 2015. That figure is likely to be much higher in reality because many families do not report runaways for fear of social stigma.
Social media has brought attention to a number of cases of women trying to flee in recent years.
Saudi women like Dina Ali Lasloom who was stopped in the Philippines, two Saudi sisters who fled to Turkey, and now Rafah Alqunun in Thailand have all used Twitter and social media to raise awareness of their plight and ask for help.
WHAT HAPPENS TO WOMEN FORCED BACK TO SAUDI ARABIA?
If women are caught running away, they can be pressured to return home or placed in shelters where often the only way out is to escape again. Others are jailed for violating so-called obedience laws and only a male guardian can sign for their release.
Last year, Mariam al-Otaibi spent more than 100 days in prison in Saudi Arabia after her father filed a complaint to police against her for leaving home. She’d moved from the ultraconservative province of Qassim to the capital, where supporters helped her rent an apartment and find work.
Women can also be placed in restrictive shelters where they cannot freely access the internet or mobile phones. Their movements are also restricted and often the only way to leave is with the consent of a male guardian.
The shelters say they offer women psychiatric care and therapy, but do not take in women who, for example, are pregnant out of wedlock. Premarital sex can lead to criminal prosecution in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.
WHAT HAPPENS TO WOMEN SEEKING ASYLUM ABROAD?
Saudi women who attempt to apply for asylum face a number of legal hurdles, including proving abuse. Without evidence, such as threatening texts, video or photos of abuse, a woman’s case for asylum can be rejected in the United States, for example.
Without access to a bank account of their own or a credit card, women can find themselves in dire circumstances in foreign countries where they do not know the local laws.
Saudi activists who have successfully fled political persecution in the kingdom do not advise women to flee as a first option, warning that women who run away without a clear plan in place are vulnerable to various kinds of abuse.
Often the Saudi women who run away are young and inexperienced, further complicating their ability to navigate lengthy and complex asylum processes.
Two young Saudi sisters found dead in New York last year had sought asylum in the U.S., according to detectives. They’d maxed out the older sister’s credit card before their bodies were found along the rocky banks of the Hudson River wrapped together with tape. Police did not suspect foul play was involved.
She also shared a picture of her passport ‘because I want you to know I’m real and exist’.
Over the weekend Rahaf said she was in a hotel on the airport grounds with multiple security and immigration officials preventing her from leaving the building.
At one point she tried to plead with the President of the United States directly, tweeting: ‘@realDonaldTrump please help me. I’m hoping that you heard about me. I’m Saudi girl who fled from her family. Now I could be killed if they drag me back to my male guardian.’
President Trump considers the kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a close ally, and has rejected the findings of his own intelligence agencies which linked ‘MBS’, as he is known, to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Thai officials claim it is a family matter and say she will be deported to Saudi – where renouncing Islam is punishable by death, and activists say women are at risk of ‘honour killings’ by family members.
It is a chilling echo of the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, a Saudi woman who in April 2017 was held for 13 hours in Manilla airport while trying to flee a forced marriage. She was forcibly taken back to Saudi Arabia by uncles and never heard from again.
Rahaf shared this copy of her passport saying on Twitter, ‘I’m sharing it with you now because I want you to know I’m real and exist’
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s tweets are being translated and shared online. She says she is in real danger if she is forced to return to Saudi Arabia
A Thai official confirmed yesterday that an 18-year-old Saudi woman seeking asylum was denied entry to Thailand and held in Bangkok’s airport.
Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told AFP: ‘Rahaf Mohammed M Alqunun ran away from her family to avoid marriage and she is concerned she may be in trouble returning to Saudi Arabia’.
He said: ‘She had no further documents such as return ticket or money.’
He added that Thai authorities contacted the ‘Saudi Arabia embassy to coordinate’.
Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn had earlier said Rahaf would be sent back to Saudi Arabia by Monday morning, adding, ‘It’s a family problem’.
But Rahaf and Human Rights Watch said in fact she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived in Suvarnabhumi airport and her passport was forcibly taken from her after a a male guardian had reported her for travelling ‘without his permission’.
Rahaf said she was trying to flee her family, who subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
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, Rahaf 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’.
In a series of tweets Ms Mohammed al-Qunun described being detained by police at Suvarnabhumi Airport (pictured) and says she fears for her life
It’s happened before: Saudi woman fleeing forced marriage disappeared in 2017
In April 2017, Saudi woman Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, attampted to flee to Australia.
She posted videos on Twitter saying she was trying to escape a forced marriage and feared violence and even death at the hands of her family if she was returned to the kingdom.
Rahaf’s situation is reminiscent of the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, pictured
She said: ‘My name is Dina Ali and I’m a Saudi woman who fled Saudi Arabia to Australia to seek asylum.
‘Please help me. I’m recording this video to help me and know that I’m real and I’m here.
‘If my family come, they will kill me.’
Ms Lasloom’s passport was confiscated by authorities in the Philippines at Manilla airport, and she was held for 13 hours.
Her case received publicity via help from a Canadian tourist, but she was nonetheless reportedly duct-taped before being being forced on a flight back to Riyadh by uncles.
She has not been heard from since.
‘I can’t escape the airport,’ she said in the live video. ‘I tried but there’s a security (official) watching me.’
Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson told MailOnline: ‘Rahaf faces being sent back to face honor related violence from her family, and openly says that her father will kill her.’
Yesterday, Rahaf told the BBC that she had renounced Islam, and feared she would be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia and killed by her family.
Thai police Major General Surachate Hakparn told the BBC that Ms Mohammed al-Qunun was escaping a marriage but because she did not have a visa to enter Thailand, police had denied her entry and were in the process of repatriating her through the same airline she had taken, Kuwait Airlines.
Gen Surachate said he was unaware of any passport seizure and it is unclear why Ms Mohammed al-Qunun would need a Thai visa if she was in transit to Australia and had an Australian visa.
Online, Arabic speakers, human rights activists and journalists have attempted to bring a media spotlight to the case on Twitter using the hashtag #SaveRahaf.
Her story has all the hallmarks of the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, 24, a Saudi woman who hoped to find sanctuary in Australia from a forced marriage.
In April 2017 she was detained in Manilla airport by authorities in the Phillipines, taken back to Saudi Arabia by her uncles and never heard from again.
She used a Canadian tourist’s phone to send a message, a video of which was posted to Twitter, saying her family would kill her.
Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has long been criticised 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.
If punished for ‘moral’ crimes, they could become victims of further violence in ‘honour killings’ at the hands of their families, activists say.
A spokeswoman for the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, told MailOnline: ‘For reasons of confidentiality and protection, we are not in a position to comment on the details (or even confirm or deny the existence) of individual cases.
‘However, UNHCR consistently advocates that refugees and asylum seekers – having been confirmed or claimed to be in need of international protection – cannot be returned to their countries of origin according to the principle of non-refoulement, which prevents states from expelling or returning persons to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened.
‘This principle is recognised as customary international law, and is also enshrined in Thailand’s other treaty obligations.’
Restrictions and reforms: Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women
The teenager’s desperate legal fight to stop her deportation from Bangkok airport has yet again shone a spotlight on the treatment of women in her homeland.
Ultraconservative Saudi Arabia is striving to craft a new image – but a number of policies remain unchanged, leaving male relatives in charge of decisions that determine women’s lives.
Here is where the Sunni Muslim kingdom stands on five core issues:
– Education –
Saudi Arabia’s so-called guardianship system places the legal and personal affairs of women in the hands of the men in their lives – fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.
Under the system, women require the formal permission of their closest male relative to enrol in classes at home, or to travel to enrol in classes abroad.
In July 2017, Saudi Arabia’s education ministry announced girls’ schools would begin to offer physical education classes for the first time, so long as they conformed with Islamic law.
The ministry statement did not specify whether girls were required to have male permission to take the classes.
Saudi Arabia is home to a number of women-only universities.
– Employment –
Restrictions on women’s employment, long ruled by the guardianship system, have been loosened as Saudi Arabia tries to wean itself off its economic dependency on oil.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, named heir to the throne in June 2017, has pushed an economic plan, known as ‘Vision 2030’, that aims to boost the female quota in the workplace from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030.
King Salman – his father – has signed off on decrees allowing women to apply online for their own business licences. Women are now also permitted to join the Saudi police force.
– Travel, driving –
Women still require male permission to renew their passports and leave the country.
But the biggest change over the past year came on June 24, 2018, when women took the driver’s seat for the first time in the kindgdom’s history.
While the end of the driving ban was a welcome major step, a number of women’s rights activists were rounded up that same month and put behind bars – some of them campaigners for the right to drive.
– Personal status –
Under the guardianship system, women of any age cannot marry without the consent of their male guardian.
A man may also divorce his wife without the woman’s consent.
On Sunday, the Saudi justice ministry said courts were required to notify women by text message that their marriages had been terminated, a measure seemingly aimed at ending cases of men getting a divorce without informing their partners.
– Public spaces –
In January 2018, women were allowed into a special section in select sports stadiums for the first time. They had previously been banned from attending sporting events.
Saudi Arabia has also dialled back the power of its infamous morality police force, or ‘mutawa’, who for decades patrolled the streets on the lookout for women with uncovered hair or bright nail polish.
Some women in the capital, Riyadh, and other cities are now seen in public without headscarves.