On Sunday, it did not look good for 18-year-old Saudi Arabian woman Rahaf Alqunun after she was detained in Bangkok, Thailand while on her way to Australia. A country where she planned to apply for asylum after fleeing from what she says is her physically and psychologically abusive family.
After all, Alqunun had been detained at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, had her passport taken from her by a Saudi Arabian diplomat, and was told by Thai authorities she would be deported back to Saudi Arabia because her male guardian said she was “traveling without his permission”.
Saudi Arabia, of course, has antiquated laws when it comes to women’s rights, with a guardianship system that means women cannot travel or even leave the home without a man’s permission.
Neither can they study, work, open a bank account, get married or divorced, or have elective surgery without their male guardian’s approval.
Needless to say, when Rahaf Alqunun left her home and boarded a plane bound for Australia via Bangkok, she was doing something that could have her arrested and put in jail upon her return to Saudi Arabia. It could even result in her being murdered by her own family.
You can only imagine how horrified Rahaf must have been then to be detained at Bangkok’s main airport, and subsequently told by Thai authorities she would be deported back to Kuwait, the country she flew in from, and thus onto Saudi Arabia.
Keeping her wits about her, however, Rahaf barricaded herself in the room of the Bangkok hotel where she had been taken by Thai officials while her deportation was being organized.
She then got on Twitter, opened an account and begged the world for help.
45,000 Twitter followers in just a few hours later, coverage from many of the world’s biggest news organizations, and Rahaf Alqunun’s fate suddenly began to change.
Especially as Thailand was being painted as the ‘bad guy’ just as much as was Rahaf’s home country of Saudi Arabia.
International pressure rains down on Thailand over Rahaf Alqunun
Whether it was this enormous international pressure on Thailand, and on Thai Immigration, who knows?
Since yesterday, however, Thailand’s attitude towards Rahaf Alqunun’s deportation back to Saudi Arabia seems to have changed. In fact, you could say the country has stepped up, and is now supporting Rahaf against Saudia Arabian interference.
First, Thai authorities allowed Rahaf to request asylum directly from UNHCR in Thailand. Something that does not usually happen.
Then today, Thailand’s Immigration Chief, Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, supported her against a Saudi Arabian diplomat who said Thailand should have confiscated her phone and not her passport.
As Khaosod English reports, during a press briefing in Bangkok, the Lieutenant-General said “I’d like to emphasize that police didn’t have the authority to confiscate her phone. She didn’t commit a crime, and it was within her rights [to tweet].”
He went on to say, “We will talk to her and do what she requests. She escaped trouble to seek our help, and we are the Land of Smiles. We will not send anyone to their death. We won’t do that. We will adhere to human rights, and principles under the rules of law”.
Whatever the reason there seems to have been an abrupt u-turn by Thai Immigration when it comes to Rahaf Alqunun’s human rights, anyone who cares about her safety should simply be saying “Thank you”.
As for Alqunun, she is now waiting for word from Australia on whether they will accept her application for asylum. This after UNHCR referred her case to Australia yesterday, saying she is a legitimate refugee.
Several other countries have also said they will give Rahaf asylum if needed.
For more about Rahaf Alqunun, watch the DW video below.