Australia on Tuesday said it would consider a humanitarian visa for a young Saudi woman who had barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room and launched a dramatic bid for asylum via social media.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, took to Twitter in protest after she was stopped by immigration officials during a transit through Bangkok airport while en route to Australia.
She claimed she was fleeing her family who had subjected her to physical and psychological abuse and that she feared she would be killed if she was sent home to Saudi Arabia. Her family have not commented on the allegations, although her father is believed to have now arrived in Thailand.
Ms al-Qunun managed to avoid being deported on a flight to Kuwait in a seemingly coordinated effort by the Thai and Saudi authorities after her cries for help sparked a global media frenzy and frantic efforts from human rights workers and diplomats to assist her.
Late on Monday she was taken into the protection of the United Nations office for refugees (UNHCR) to process her asylum request.
“We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back Ms. Al-qunun against her will and are extending protection for her,” said Giuseppe de Vicentiis, the UNHCR’s representative in Thailand, in a statement on Tuesday.
“It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps”, he added. “For reasons of protection and confidentiality we are not in a position to comment on the details of individual cases".
Ms al-Qunun had been in possession of a valid tourist visa for Australia when she was detained at the aiport, as she had been planning to seek asylum there.
After fears were raised by her supporters that the visa had been cancelled, the Australian government responded that it was “pleased” that the UNHCR was now handling her case.
“The government has made representations to the Thai government and the Bangkok office of the UNHCR about its serious concerns on this matter and the need for Ms al-Qunun’s claim to be assessed expeditiously,” a Department of Home Affairs official told The Telegraph.
Rahaf just send me this, she just want you to make sure she is on the hotel and she still needs help and protection. pic.twitter.com/xxs61JIfhP— Rahaf Mohammed رهف محمد القنون (@rahaf84427714) January 7, 2019
“Any application by Ms al-Qunun for a humanitarian visa will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded,” the official added.
The teenager was being held in a secure location in Bangkok on Tuesday. It is not known if she met with her father Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi government official from Ha’il province, whose arrival, she told her growing Twitter following, “worried and scared me a lot.”
After a day of high drama on social media on Monday, where she used livestreaming videos to transmit her increasingly panicked requests to meet the UN and for help from Western governments, her account remained relatively quiet as she processed her asylum paperwork.
However, Ms al-Qunun and her friends increasingly urged Canada to open its doors to her. “I want Canada to give me asylum!” she tweeted.
But she also added: “I seek protection in particular from the following country Canada/United States/ Australia /United kingdom, I ask any if it [sic] Representatives to contact me.”
#UNHCR & #Thailand govt should say NO to request by father & brother to meet with #Rahaf@rahaf84427714. Only she can make that choice, she's an adult woman who can make her own decisions! https://t.co/JlbTkTYNknpic.twitter.com/PRBgcyhQ46— Phil Robertson (@Reaproy) January 8, 2019
Stefano Maron, a spokesperson for Canada's foreign office, said: "Canada is very concerned by and watching closely the situation of Ms. Rahaf al-Qunun. We are in close contact with partners about her situation. Canada will always stand up for human rights, very much including women’s rights."
Canadian diplomats have been praised by human rights workers for their commitment to her case behind-the-scenes.
Phil Robertson, deputy director at Human Rights Watch in Asia, who was closely involved in the case as it unfolded, lauded the Canadian embassy for being “steadfast & superb at every step of the way” to help save Rahaf.
Germany also spoke out in support of the young woman. Georg Schmidt, the German ambassador to Thailand, had been one of the first foreign officials to publicly express “grave concern” over her situation.
The UK’s foreign and commonwealth office has remained silent on the matter. In one of many apparently desperate tweets as she tried to stave off repatriation, Ms al-Qunun had appealed directly to Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, to help organise an emergency UK travel document.
Ms al-Qunun’s relentless use of social media to highlight her plight sparked a turnaround by the Thai authorities, who had initially claimed she had been running away from her family to avoid marriage and appeared at first to be reluctant to allow the UN access to her.
By Monday evening, the Thai authorities had instead assured her safety. "If deporting her would result in her death, we definitely wouldn’t want to do that,” said Surachate Hakparn, Thailand’s immigration chief.
The outcome was hailed as a “good day for the cause of human rights around the world,” by Human Rights Watch, which said in a statement that “Rahaf’s tremendous courage and resilience” had been “met with a global surge of sympathy for her” to persuade Thailand to do the right thing.