Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrived at Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi airport on a flight from Kuwait on Sunday after running away from her family, who she says subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
Ms Qunun said she planned to seek asylum in Australia, fearing she would be killed if repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her at the airport.
On Sunday, Thai authorities said Ms Qunun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia, but they abruptly changed course as her plight spread across social media.
Ms Qunun and four Saudi expatriate women she chose as surrogates posted dozens of tweets and live videos in English and Arabic, some describing how she had barricaded herself in a hotel room. She set up the Twitter account after arriving in Thailand and being forcibly detained in a room at the transit hotel inside Suvarnabhumi airport.
Her account has quickly racked up tens of thousands of followers, feeding an international media frenzy.
On Monday she was allowed to leave the airport in the care of the UN’s refugee agency.
The Australian government teased the possibility of granting the young woman refugee status, saying Tuesday it was “pleased” the UN was assessing her claim.
“Any application by Ms Al-Qunun for a humanitarian visa will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded,” a Department of Home Affairs official said.
The Saudi Embassy in Bangkok issued a statement yesterday, saying “what has been rumoured in social media that the embassy has seized Ms Qunun’s passport is incorrect”.
It also cited Thai authorities, saying the woman was stopped as she could not present the required documents.
“The embassy also confirms that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did not demand her deportation back to her country,” the statement said.
It also said that the case is “a family affair”, but is under the attention of the embassy. The embassy earlier denied reports it sent officials to the airport to meet Ms Qunun following her arrival at the airport.
Calls for help by Ms Qunun prompted the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee body, to step in. UNHCR representative Giuseppe De Vincentiis visited the woman on Monday night.
The UNHCR issued a statement yesterday saying it would look into Ms Qunun’s case “to assess her need for international protection” and that “It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps.”
Meanwhile, Immigration Bureau chief Pol Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn visited Abdalelah Mohammed A Alsheaiby, charge d’affaires of the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, to discuss the case. Saudi Arabia has not sent an ambassador to Thailand for decades.
Speaking after the meeting, Gen Surachate said the talk were satisfactory. He claimed the Saudi charge agreed with all the proceedings in relation to the case.
Gen Surachate stressed that it is Ms Qunun’s wish to be cared for by the UNHCR.
He said her father and brother were scheduled to arrive in Thailand yesterday evening and that he would coordinate with the agency to arrange the meeting. Ms Qunun has said she fled Saudi Arabia in the first place because of mistreatment by her brother and father.
Gen Surachate added that the two countries have agreed that the issue is a family affair in which family members must talk to each other.
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