BANGKOK — The head of Thailand’s immigration police said Monday that an 18-year-old Saudi woman who was stopped in Bangkok as she was trying to travel to Australia for asylum to escape alleged abuse by her family will not be sent anywhere against her wishes.
The woman, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, was allowed to temporarily enter Thailand under the protection of the U.N. refugee agency, which was expected to take at least five to seven days to evaluate her case and claims for asylum status.
Thai immigration police released photos of Alqunun after she left the room at a Bangkok airport hotel where she had been holed up. Where she would stay in the Thai capital was not announced.
Alqunun had stayed in the room while sending out desperate pleas for help over social media. She began posting on Twitter late Saturday after her passport was taken away when she arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait.
The agreement allowing her to leave the airport came after officials from the U.N. refugee agency, known as UNHCR, met with Thai immigration police chief Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, and then with Alqunun.
UNHCR declined to release any details of its meeting with Alqunun, but its representative in Thailand, Giuseppe De Vincentiis, noted “a good spirit of collaboration so far” with Thai officials.
According to Surachate, Alqunun’s father was due to arrive in Bangkok on Monday night, and officials would then see if the young woman was willing to depart with him. He said the woman would be asked if she was willing to meet with her father.
“As of now, she does not wish to go back and we will not force her. She won’t be sent anywhere tonight,” Surachate said at one of several news conferences at the airport.
“She fled hardship. Thailand is a land of smiles,” he said. “We will not send anyone to die. We will not do that. We will adhere to human rights under the rule of law.”
On Twitter, Alqunun had written of being in “real danger” if forced to return to her family in Saudi Arabia, and has claimed in media interviews that she could be killed. She told the BBC that she had renounced Islam and is fearful of her father’s retaliation.
Alqunun’s planned forced departure Monday morning was averted as she stayed in her hotel room, with furniture piled up against the door, photos she posted online showed.
Her plight mirrors that of other Saudi women who in recent years have turned to social media to amplify their calls for help while trying to flee abusive families. Alqunun’s Twitter account attracted more than 50,000 followers in less than 48 hours and her story grabbed the attention of foreign governments as well as the U.N. refugee agency.
Her pleas for asylum have also brought international attention to the obstacles women face in Saudi Arabia under male guardianship laws, which require that women, regardless of their age, have the consent of a male relative — usually a father or husband — to travel, obtain a passport or marry.
They also show the limits of reforms being pushed by Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman as he struggles to repair damage to his reputation after the grisly killing three months ago of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul.
Alqunun told Human Rights Watch that she was fleeing beatings and death threats from her male relatives who forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Thailand should give Alqunun back her passport and let her continue her journey to Australia.
“She has a valid Australian visa,” he said. “The key thing is she should not be sent back to Saudi Arabia, she should not be sent back into harm’s way.”
Immigration police chief Surachate challenged parts of Alqunun’s story, including her claim that she had an Australian visa. However, he did not show her passport.
“The fact is she didn’t have any money,” he said. “She intended to come here and didn’t have any visa to go to Australia. So we have to state the facts here. But we will provide assistance nonetheless.”
Surachate later alleged that Kuwait Airways had been at fault for allowing Alqunun to board her flight to Thailand without having proper travel documents. Comment was not immediately available from the airline. Alqunun had been traveling with her family in Kuwait, from where she may have chosen to flee because it has less restrictions than her homeland on women’s travel.
For runaway Saudi women, fleeing can be a matter of life and death, and they are almost always doing so to escape male relatives.
In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom triggered a firestorm online when she was stopped en route to Australia, where she had planned to seek asylum. She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia and was not publicly heard from again, according to activists tracking her whereabouts.
Chief of Immigration Police Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn talks to media about the status Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun during a press conference at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok Monday, Jan. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Despite efforts by the Saudi government to curtail the scope of male guardianship laws, women who attempt to flee their families in Saudi Arabia have few good options inside the kingdom. They are often either pressured to reconcile with their families, are sent to shelters where their movement is restricted or face arrest for disobeying their legal guardian.
Alqunun has said she was tricked into giving up her passport upon arrival in Bangkok by a man she has variously identified as a Kuwait Airways employee or a Saudi Embassy official. She said Saudi and Thai officials then told her she would be returned to Kuwait on Monday, where her father and brother were awaiting her.
While the Saudi Embassy in Thailand denied that Saudi authorities were involved in attempts to stop Alqunun from traveling to Australia, the kingdom has in the past forcibly returned its citizens home.
Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in Bangkok, Abdullah al-Shuaibi, was quoted in Saudi media as saying that Alqunun was stopped by Thai authorities because she did not appear to have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist. He said the Saudi Embassy has no authority to stop anyone at the airport and that such a decision would rest with Thai officials.
“She was stopped by airport authorities because she violated Thai laws,” he was quoted as saying in Sabq, a state-aligned Saudi news website. “The embassy is only monitoring the situation.”
Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press journalists Tassanee Vejpongsa and Grant Peck in Bangkok and Sam McNeil in Sydney contributed to this report.