Meet 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun. She is now the toast of the #MeToo Movement and all equally liberal-minded women the world over after she dared to turn her back on an unhappy existence in her home in Saudi Arabia, due to an abusive and oppressive family and carve out a new life for herself (albeit fraught with uncertainties) in any country that would welcome her.
The Saudi teenager had managed to get global attention after she began posting Twitter updates while barricading herself inside her hotel room to stop being deported by Thai immigration.
The ruckus caused by Al-Qunun was fortunately loud enough to catch the ear of the United Nations (UN) refugee commission which has now placed her under its protective wing.
Al-Qunun was reportedly being detained by Thai authorities due to problems with her travel documents and was about to be forced to board a return flight to Kuwait when a deluge of international protests began flooding the office of the Thai Prime Minister.
Rahaf’s case is in stark contrast to the “ugly incident” that allegedly occurred at the departure area of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1 (NAIA) in early 2017 wherein another Saudi woman who was transiting to Australia, identified as Dina Ali Lasloom, was forcibly repatriated by the Bureau of Immigration (BI) upon the insistence of Saudi Embassy officials.
The BI-NAIA denied that such an incident occurred. However, in a subsequent story, the BBC news network claimed the Saudi officials in Manila confirmed that Lasloom was indeed sent back to Riyadh after trying to escape from her relatives and whatever happened was merely a “family affair.”
According to an account by the Abu Dhabi-based Al Jazeera news, the unfortunate Ms. Lasloom was allegedly heard screaming and begging for help as several men (alleged to be NAIA immigration personnel and Saudi Embassy staffers) bundled her off with duct tape on her hands, feet and mouth.
For Al-Qunun, such UN intervention was quite timely as a Thai court had already rejected a petition filed by interested parties seeking to block her looming deportation.
Al-Qunun fled Kuwait while on vacation with her family. She flew into Bangkok airport and was about to travel on to Australia where she planned to seek asylum, but was immediately taken into custody after disembarking and told she had to be sent back whence she came.
Al-Qunun apprised UN representatives she was physically and psychologically abused by her family which is why she had opted to leave. She said she feared the worst if repatriated as she had rebelled against the family and announced her intention to renounce Islam which is punishable with death in the repressive Saudi Kingdom.
Due to tremendous pressure exerted from abroad, led by Amnesty International (AI), as well as the Federal Republic of Germany, Thai officials walked back on plans to expel Al-Qunun.
“If she does not want to leave, we will not force her,” Immigration chief Surachate Hakparn was quoted as telling international media who had gathered at his office. “This is the Land of Smiles.”
A statement from AI said under the guidelines set by the UN Commission for Refugees, the Thai government is obliged not to transfer persons to any place where they face a real risk of human rights abuses. Asylum seekers cannot be returned to their country of origin if they fear their life is in danger.
Human Rights Watch said Thailand should stop any ongoing deportation proceedings and either allow Al-Qunun to travel to Australia or allow her to stay and seek refugee status as her protection.
Al-Qunun’s father, a ranking Saudi government official, and brother are said to have flown to Bangkok to try and convince her to come back home with them, but she rejected their overtures. She is now applying for a humanitarian visa to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada or Australia for resettlement.