SYDNEY/BANGKOK (Reuters) – Australia said on Wednesday it would consider taking in a 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family, which she accused of abuse, would kill her.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrived in Bangkok on Saturday appealing for asylum. Australia said on Tuesday it would consider resettling her if the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deemed her a refugee.
“The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” Australia’s Department of Homeland Security said in an email on Wednesday.
The department said it would consider the referral “in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals”. It declined to comment further.
The UNHCR office in Thailand also declined to comment.
Qunun has refused to meet her father and brother who flew to Bangkok this week, Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said.
“He wanted to make sure that his daughter was safe… he told me that he wanted to take her home,” he said, adding that her father denied Qunun’s allegation that her family was abusing her physically and emotionally.
Surachate added that Qunan’s father would remain in Thailand, under the care of the Saudi Arabian embassy, until it is clear where Qunun will receive asylum.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne is due in Bangkok on Thursday 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.
Qunun was initially denied entry to Thailand when she arrived on Saturday. She soon started 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 forced to return to Saudi Arabia.
Within hours, a campaign sprang up on Twitter, spread by a loose network of activists around the world, prompting the Thai government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.
Qunun’s 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.
It comes at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.
Thai authorities arrested and charged AlAraibi, a Bahraini footballer who has a refugee status in Australia, late last year.
Bahrain made a request to have him extradited and he is in jail, waiting for a hearing to decide his case.
“AlAraibi was granted permanent residency by the Australian government in recognition of his status as a refugee,” Payne said in a statement, saying that she would seek his safe return to Australia.
Rights group Amnesty International said Thai authorities should “show humanity” to AlAraibi the same way they had to Qunun.
“We welcome the leadership shown by the Thai authorities in Rahaf’s case,” the group’s Middle East director of campaigns, Samah Hadid, said in a statement.
“No person should be deported to a country where they are at risk of serious human rights violations … the humanity shown to Rahaf must not be a one-off.”
Reporting by Byron Kaye, Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY, Juarawee Kittisilpa, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, and Panu Wongcha-um in BANGKOK; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie