BANGKOK (AP) — 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.
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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.
“The unique thing about this case is that she had access to social media, and was able to report on it and bring the world’s attention to her plight,” said Pearson. “I think there are many cases like this that go unreported.”
A similar point was made by UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch, who said that what was different in Alqunun’s case was that “the wave of all of the voices of solidarity and support came together, joined up in terms of caring for this individual.”
Surachate discussed Alqunun’s situation on Tuesday with Saudi Charge d’Affaires in Thailand Abdalelah Mohammed A. Alsheaiby. In a video clip of the meeting released by Thai immigration police, Alsheaiby is heard telling Thai officials: “From the moment she arrived, she opened a new account and her followers reached almost 45,000 in a day . and I would have preferred it better if her phone was taken instead of her passport.”
The comments sparked anger on social media. Surachate said that police could not confiscate her phone because she was not being detained and said that the Saudi diplomat’s remark was “just an opinion” and “nothing to be taken seriously.”
A Tuesday statement from the Saudi Embassy in Thailand denied interfering in Alqunun’s case, and said it was only monitoring her situation. Describing her case as a “family affair,” it said Saudi officials had neither seized her passport — as Alqunun had claimed several times — nor demanded her deportation back home.
The embassy and Thai officials earlier said that Alqunun was stopped by Thai authorities because she did not have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist, which appeared to have raised a red flag about the reasons for her trip.
Saudi Arabia’s wider human rights record has come under intense scrutiny since the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in October. Khashoggi, who wrote critically of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in columns for The Washington Post, had been living in self-imposed exile before Saudi agents killed and dismembered him inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The kingdom offered various shifting accounts of the circumstances of his death before eventually settling on the explanation that he died in a botched operation to forcibly bring him back to Saudi Arabia.
Marshallsea reported from Sydney. Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Geneva.
This story has been corrected to show the rank of Thailand’s immigration chief is lieutenant general.