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‘Under UN care’: Saudi woman ‘rescued’ from deportation after social media storm

‘Under UN care’: Saudi woman ‘rescued’ from deportation after social media storm
The UN is examining the asylum appeal of a young Saudi woman who fled her family and is afraid of getting killed if sent home. She earlier barricaded herself in a Thai hotel room, refusing to leave until the UN intervened.

It will take the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) “several days” to determine whether Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, needs international protection, the organization’s representative in Thailand said. The woman earlier claimed asylum, fearing that she will be killed if expelled to her home country. UNHCR staff is expected to continue interviewing her on Tuesday.

A student at the University of Ha’il, Saudi Arabia, al-Qunun fled her family during a holiday trip to Kuwait. She was planning to seek asylum in Australia but was intercepted at an airport transit zone in Bangkok. She claimed that a Saudi diplomat seized her passport and tickets as part of a plot to forcefully return her to Kuwait on the next flight.

Al-Qunun then barricaded herself inside an airport’s hotel room, refusing to come out until she was granted a meeting with UN officials.

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In a series of emotional posts and videos on social media, she said that she escaped from abusive relatives and fears for her life because she had publicly renounced Islam. Leaving Islam is illegal in Saudi Arabia and punishable by death.

“They will kill me,” she said. “My life is in danger.”

Rahaf’s posts immediately caused outcry on social media and attracted a flurry of responses. They were quickly shared online as Twitter users appealed to the UN and world leaders to rescue the trapped teen.

In her pleas online, the young woman specifically asked for asylum in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. Thai immigration police initially indicated that she had to be sent back to Kuwait. But as her desperate calls for help quickly attracted human rights campaigners and UN refugee staffers intervened, they promised not to deport her.

“We will take her into Bangkok and provide her with safe shelter under the care of the UNHCR,” Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters on Monday after UN officials escorted her out of the hotel.

Riyadh denied that it had ever planned on apprehending al-Qunun and bringing her back, calling the case a “family matter.” Al-Qunun’s father and brother arrived in Bangkok seeking a talk with her. Thai immigration services said that such a meeting is possible only with approval from UN personnel.

After leaving the airport, al-Qunun reiterated that she would like to seek asylum in Canada. Ottawa didn’t issue any official response. However, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director with Human Rights Watch, revealed that Canada “really worked very hard” to “persuade” Thailand not to expel her.

At the same time, Australian media has reported that the government in Canberra will be ready to take in al-Qunun if the UN verifies her claims. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young had earlier urged the prime minister to issue emergency travel documents for the Saudi woman and admit her into the country.

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