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Saudi teen fleeing ‘strangling’ restrictions to be granted refugee status in Australia

18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun (C) is escorted to a vehicle by a Thai immigration officer in Bangkok on 7 January 2019 [STR/AFP/Getty Images]
18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qanun (C) is escorted to a vehicle by a Thai immigration officer in Bangkok on 7 January 2019 [STR/AFP/Getty Images]

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun is close to being granted asylum after being referred to Australia by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) as a legitimate refugee. Canberra confirmed today that it would consider taking in the 18-year-old who fled to Thailand saying she feared she would be killed by her family.

Al-Qunun arrived in Bangkok on Saturday appealing for asylum. She had been stranded at airport and was denied entry by Thai immigration officials. She reached out through social media and began  posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport saying she had “escaped Kuwait” and her life would be in danger if she was forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

To avoid being deported back to Kuwait, from where she’d travelled, she barricaded herself inside an airport transit hotel. She told Reuters she fled Kuwait while her family was visiting the Gulf country and had planned to travel from Thailand to Australia to seek asylum

READ: Saudi women activists tortured and abused in prison, says rights group

Australia said on yesterday it would consider resettling her if the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deemed her a refugee. Its Department of Homeland Security confirmed in an email today that “the UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement.”

The department added it would consider the referral “in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals”.

According to Reuters Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne is due in Bangkok tomorrow for a visit arranged earlier, during which she will discuss the case of Bahrain footballer Hakeem AlAraibi, who has refugee status in Australia but is in jail in Thailand. Al-Qunun’s plight is likely to be also discussed during the visit.

The case has drawn global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

A similar daring escape was made last year by a Dubai princess, Sheikha Latifa Mohammed Al Maktoum. The runaway UAE royal also cited domestic abuse and restrictions for wanting to flee the Gulf state. Though she was eventually brought back to Dubai, the high profile cases maybe a sign that increasing numbers of women in Gulf States are beginning to contemplate doing something similar.

READ: Amnesty calls for solidarity with female Saudi detainees

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