Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun’s universtiy ID card. (Source: Rahaf’s Twitter handle)

Australia May Issue Visa for Saudi Woman Who Says She Fled Abuse

(Bloomberg) -- Australia will consider resettling an 18-year-old Saudi woman who said she was fleeing abuse from her family after the United Nations deemed she is a refugee.

“The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said in an emailed statement on Wednesday. “The Department of Home Affairs will consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals.”

Caroline Gluck, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Bangkok, declined to comment.

Australia May Issue Visa for Saudi Woman Who Says She Fled Abuse

The woman, whose predicament went viral via her Twitter account, told Human Rights Watch that she had arrived at Bangkok’s main airport on Jan. 5 from Kuwait, and that her passport was seized, preventing her from traveling to Australia.

While Saudi Arabia has gradually granted women more rights as part of an overhaul led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the conservative Islamic kingdom still applies a guardianship system that makes women legal dependents of male relatives. Women of all ages need permission from their guardian -- typically a father, husband or brother -- to marry or travel abroad.

Al-Qunun had been holed up in a hotel at the airport in Thailand and earlier said in a video posted on Twitter that she wouldn’t leave the room until she met the UNHCR representatives, adding she wanted asylum.

“I’m shouting out for help of humanity,” she wrote on Twitter, where she had been documenting her situation in Arabic and English.

Earlier on Wednesday, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said Al-Qunun wouldn’t receive “special treatment” should the UNHCR deem her a refugee.

“Nobody wants to see a young girl in distress and she has obviously now found a safe haven in Thailand,” Dutton said.“We will work with the UN, but there is no special treatment in this case.”

Human Rights Watch said she risks criminal charges in Saudi Arabia for “parental disobedience,” which can result in imprisonment, as well as for “harming the reputation of the kingdom.” Al-Qunun also told some media outlets that she had renounced Islam, a criminal offense in Saudi Arabia that can be punishable by death.

Al-Qunan has said she would be “in real danger” if Thai authorities deported her and fears her family would kill her. She barricaded herself inside the hotel room to resist deportation on a Kuwait Airways flight on Monday morning, which then left Bangkok without her, according to her posts.

In 2017, another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia while in transit in the Philippines during an attempt to get to Australia. She was held in a detention facility for women under 30 upon her return, and it’s unclear what has happened to her since then.

Thailand’s military government was criticized last year for arresting Hakeem Al-Araibi, a former Bahrain soccer player with refugee status in Australia. He had come to Thailand for his honeymoon and remains in detention pending possible extradition to Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Thailand have been strained for decades after gems including a valuable blue diamond were stolen from a Saudi prince by a Thai employee and a Saudi businessman who traveled to investigate the theft went missing.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.