Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun talks to Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn at the Suvarnabhumi international airport near BangkokImage copyright EPA/THAI IMMIGRATION BUREAU
Image caption Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, pictured at Bangkok airport, says she “wants to be free” away from Saudi Arabia

A Saudi woman who fled her family and refused to leave a Bangkok hotel has been declared a legitimate refugee by the UN, the Australian government says.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, refused to board a flight from Bangkok to Kuwait on Monday and barricaded herself into her airport hotel room.

“he said she had renounced Islam, which is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

The UN’s refugee agency has referred her case to Australia for possible resettlement.

Thai immigration officials had initially said she should return to Kuwait, where her family were waiting. She then started a social media campaign, live-tweeting her case and attracting international attention.

In a brief statement, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said it would “consider this referral in the usual way”.

“The government will be making no further comment on this matter,” it said.

Refugee status is normally granted by governments, but the UNHCR can grant it where states are “unable or unwilling to do so, according to its website. The UNHCR says it does not comment on individual cases.

Now that Ms Mohammed-al Qunun has been given this status, another country must agree to take her in.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Saudi Arabia has some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women

Officials in Australia have hinted that her request will be accepted.

“If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told the ABC network before the UN determination was made public.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne will be in Thailand on Thursday as part of a pre-planned visit.

Why did she claim asylum?

Renunciation of Islam is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Ms Mohammed al-Qunun’s father is the governor of al-Sulaimi, a town in the northern Saudi province of Hail.

“My life is in danger,” she told the Reuters news agency. “My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”

A spokesperson for her family told the BBC that they did not wish to comment and all they cared about was the young woman’s safety.

Campaign groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have expressed grave concerns for Ms Mohammed al-Qunun.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director off HRW, told Reuters: “She said very clearly that she has suffered both physical and psychological abuse. She said she has made a decision to renounce Islam. And I knew once she said that, she is in serious trouble”.

On Tuesday morning she retweeted her original appeal for asylum, pleading for the UK, Canada, the US or Australia to take her in.

How did the case unfold?

Ms Mohammed al-Qunun says she was on a trip to Kuwait with her family when she fled on a flight on 4 January.

She was trying to head to Australia via a connecting flight in Bangkok.

Because she did not have a visa to enter Thailand, Thai police had denied her entry and were in the process of repatriating her through the same airline she had taken, Kuwait Airways, an official said.

A Saudi diplomat had reportedly seized her passport when she flew into Thailand. But a Saudi envoy in Bangkok denied any official Saudi involvement in Ms Mohammed al-Qunun’s detention.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Police in Thailand had denied entry to the woman and were in the process of repatriating her

She began to live-tweet her ordeal, sharing her Twitter password with friends so they too could assist in spreading the message on social media. A campaign of activists joined them, using the hashtag #SaveRahaf. But some social media users in her own country strongly criticized her actions.

A video she posted showed how she resisted deportation efforts by hiding in an airport hotel room, putting a table against the door to stop people from entering.

She told the BBC: “I shared my story and my pictures on social media and my father is so angry because I did this… I can’t study and work in my country, so I want to be free and study and work as I want.”

Ms Mohammed al-Qunun has been housed in a secure location in Bangkok since Monday night, when the Thai government allowed her to leave the airport, and has been interviewed by UN officials over her claims that her life would be in danger if she returned to her family.

On Tuesday she said her passport had been returned.

Ms Mohammed al-Qunun’s father and brother have arrived in Thailand but she is refusing to see them.

What is Australia’s policy on asylum seekers?

Many asylum seekers have tried to reach Australia on boats from Indonesia, often paying large sums to people smugglers. Hundreds have died. In 2013, the government introduced tough new policies to “stop the boats”.

Military vessels patrol Australian waters and intercept migrant boats, often towing them back to Indonesia. This and other policies have significantly curbed the number of boat journeys.

Hundreds of asylum seekers who reached Australian shores years ago are held in offshore processing centres, which rights groups say expose them to widespread psychological harm.

But in the financial year 2017-2018, 24,000 refugees were taken in, including a special intake of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, one of the highest numbers since the early 1980s.

The country has taken 656 refugees per 100,000 people through UN refugee agency resettlement schemes, more than twice as many as the United States.

Source: BBC