Australia considering resettlement for fleeing Saudi

Kaweewit Kaewjinda and Trevor Marshallsea
Associated Press

Bangkok – A Saudi woman who fled her family, alleging abuse, moved a step closer Wednesday to her goal of gaining asylum in Australia after a U.N. agency granted her refugee status.

The Australian government said it was considering Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun for refugee resettlement, in a case that has advanced rapidly since the weekend when the 18-year-old barricaded herself in an airport hotel in Thailand and publicized her case on social media.

Alqunun arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait on Saturday, and planned to continue to Australia, where she held a tourist visa. But after being detained by Thai authorities, she refused to board a flight back to Kuwait.

After grabbing worldwide attention with dramatic posts on social media in which she said she feared for her safety if made to return home to her family, Alqunun eventually was placed in the care of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as her bid for refugee status was considered.

Alqunun’s father denied physically abusing her or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, among the reasons she gave for her flight, Thailand’s Immigration Police chief said after meeting him Wednesday.

The father, whose name was not released and who was not seen by reporters, said he wants his daughter back but respects her decision, police Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said. He described the man as being a governor in Saudi Arabia.

“He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes,” Surachate said. “But he didn’t go into detail.”

Alqunun refused to meet with her father, who arrived in the Thai capital on Tuesday. She had said in her online postings that she was afraid of such an encounter.

Alqunun arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait late Saturday, but was stopped from proceeding to her planned destination of Australia. After mounting a campaign for assistance on Twitter, she was allowed to temporarily stay in Thailand under the care of the U.N.’s refugee agency, which ruled her claim for asylum valid.

Australia’s Home Affairs Department said it would “consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals.”

Indications from Canberra suggest Alqunun may receive a sympathetic hearing.

“If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. before the UNHCR’s referral.

The case has highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many more similar cases will have gone unreported.

The influence of the Internet on Alqunun’s case was noted by several human rights advocates.

The representative in Australia of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said it was encouraging that Alqunun was able to highlight her situation using social media, and she hoped more Saudi women might act similarly.