10 Jan 2019

Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun: Australia to process UN refugee referral

10:14 am on 10 January 2019

The Australian government has confirmed the United Nations refugee agency has asked it to consider resettling a young Saudi woman detained in Thailand, who has reacted with joy.

January 7, 2019 shows 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun (2nd-L) is being escorted by the Thai immigration officer and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials at the Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok.

Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, is escorted by the Thai immigration officer and UNHCR officials after gaining protection from the agency. Photo: AFP / Thai Immigration Bureau

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was allowed to enter Thailand temporarily under the protection of the United Nations refugee agency on Monday after successfully resisting deportation.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has now assessed her case and found she is a refugee.

The 18-year-old barricaded herself in a room at an airport hotel in Bangkok on Sunday, saying she had renounced Islam and her life was in danger from her family in Kuwait.

She said a Saudi diplomat met her at the airport when she arrived in Bangkok and tricked her into handing over her passport and ticket, saying he would secure a visa.

Australia's Department of Home Affairs confirmed on Wednesday the United Nations refugee agency had referred Ms Alqunun's case to Australia for consideration.

"The Department ... will consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals," it said in a statement.

The country's government yesterday said it would consider her application if one was lodged by the UNHCR.

Ms al-Qunun's asylum application was fast-tracked, partly because of security concerns after the young woman's father and brother arrived in Bangkok and asked Thai police to see her.

She will be subject to Australian checks before she is granted a humanitarian visa, including character and security assessments.

The Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, earlier signalled a willingness to look at the case.

"I think the most important thing is a young woman in these very very difficult circumstances is supported appropriately through the UN processes and that countries like Australia who are in a position potentially to provide her with support are able to work from that point once those are finalised and determine what the next steps are," Ms Payne said.

Activists have urged the Australian government to support Ms al-Qunun in her bid for asylum in Australia, and said the young woman should be issued with emergency travel documents.

Thai police say Rahaf al-Qunun's father is still in Thailand and opposes her application to resettle. The teenager feared the presence of her father and brother in Thailand posed a new risk to her plan to escape her family to a different country.

Her father told officers she was not abused or threatened with a forced marriage but as one of 10 children she might have occassionally felt neglected.

Women in Saudi Arabia are subject to male guardianship laws, which mean they need a male relative's permission to work, travel, marry, open a bank account, or even leave prison.

Freedom of religion is not legally protected in the kingdom, and people who convert to another religion from Islam risk being charged with apostasy - or abandoning their religious beliefs.

The crime is legally punishable by death - although courts have not carried out a death sentence in recent years.


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