A Saudi teenager who flew to Thailand to escape her family in Kuwait will be allowed to stay in the country for now, Thai officials said Monday.
The 18-year-old, who identified herself as Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq Al-Qunun on an unverified Twitter account, had barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room in an effort to prevent officials from sending her back to her family.
She posted photographs of herself and her passport, and said she was seeking refugee status from “any country that would protect me from getting harmed or killed due to leaving my religion and torture from my family.”
Earlier on Monday, Qunun posted videos on social media where she can be heard refusing entry to people knocking on the door of her hotel room at the airport.
“They’re trying to get me to come out so they can take me away. I’m trying to contact the UN,” she told the camera. A mattress, desk and chair were seen standing against the chain-locked door.
Thailand’s immigration police chief, Surachet Hakpal, initially told CNN that Qunun would be returned to Kuwait later on Monday.
But hours later, Hakpal said Qunun would instead be released from the airport into the protection of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
“She is now under the sovereignty of Thailand. No one and no embassy can force her to go anywhere. We will protect her as best as we can,” Hakpal told a news conference Monday.
“We will talk to her and do whatever she requests. Since she escaped trouble to seek our help, we are the Land of Smiles, we will not send anyone to their death. We won’t do that, we will adhere to the human rights principles under the rule of law.”
After meeting with Thai immigration officials and UNHCR representatives, Qunun left the hotel with UNHCR staff through the back door to avoid the waiting media outside, Hakpal told CNN.
In a statement, UNHCR said it would “assess her need for international refugee protection and find an immediate solution for her situation.”
CNN has not been able to reach Qunun’s family for a response to the abuse allegations.
Qunun says she arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on Saturday after a flight from Kuwait, where her family is. She told CNN she originally intended to fly on to Australia, but decided to enter Thailand instead.
Upon landing, she claims she was held by Saudi embassy officials and had her passport confiscated. She said the Saudis tried to make her sign a piece of paper, and that when she refused and appealed to Thai immigration officials, she was escorted to a transit hotel.
“I cannot flee the airport, I’ve tried but couldn’t. There’s a security guard watching me,” she said in a video posted on Twitter before she left the hotel.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch urged Thai authorities to allow Qunun “unrestricted access to make a refugee claim with the Bangkok office of the United Nations refugee agency.”
“Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation, and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee.”
Hakpal, the immigration chief, told CNN that Qunun had been refused entry into the country because she did not present “any necessary document.” But he denied the Saudi teenager was being detained by Thai authorities.
“In order to enter our country, she must comply with our regulations … this is their (Saudi Arabia’s) internal affairs. We are simply performing our duties,” he said. Hakpal also said Qunun was trying to escape from an arranged marriage.
Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, based in Bangkok, said no country should interfere with an 18-year-old’s right to travel where she wished. Robertson told CNN that Qunun “fears for her life if she is returned to Saudi Arabia and her family, who have physically and psychologically abused her for daring to assert her independence.”
In a statement, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Qunun “does not have a return reservation or a tourist program, which requires deportation by the Thai authorities.”
The ministry added that Saudi consular officials were in “constant contact with her family” and she would be “deported to the State of Kuwait where her family live.”
It denied allegations that her passport had been seized.
Saudi Arabia’s restrictive guardianship laws govern many aspects of women’s lives. Women may not marry, divorce, get a job, have elective surgery or travel without permission of their male guardians.
When asked about Qunun and guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia on Monday, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said as “a matter of principle for the world over, the Secretary-General believes in equal treatment of men and women under the law.”