#SaveRahaf: Who is Rahaf al-Qunun and why is she fleeing from her family?

Bangkok: An 18-year-old Saudi teenager fled from her family and barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room saying she feared death at their hands if returned to them. This girl – Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun – alleged she was held by Saudi embassy officials and had her passport confiscated. 

Three days later, Al-Qunun has been released from the airport and is now under the protection of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Thai authorities.

The UNHCR’s representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vincentiis, told CNN on Tuesday that it was still assessing Al-Qunun’s protection claims and it could take “several days to process the case and determine next steps.”

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrived at Bangkok’s main airport on Saturday on a flight from Kuwait after running away from her family who she alleges subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.

Who is Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun?

The teenager told reporters that she fled Kuwait while her family was visiting the Gulf country. She had planned to travel from Thailand to Australia to seek asylum, fearing she would be killed if sent back by Thai immigration officials who detained her on a stopover in Bangkok.

Qunun has said she believes she will be imprisoned or killed if sent back and that her family is so strict it once locked her in a room for six months for cutting her hair.

Social Media’s #SaveRahaf movement

Under the hashtag #SaveRahaf, the young woman’s desperate pleas became a social media sensation, where she was able to post live updates and videos from the Bangkok airport in both Arabic and English, racking up more than 80,000 followers.

Canada’s role in Rahaf’s aide

Canada played a role in convincing the Thai government not to send an asylum-seeking woman back to Saudi Arabia against her wishes, says Human Rights Watch.

Stefano Maron, spokesperson for Global Affairs, said Canada is “very concerned by and watching closely the situation of Rahaf al-Qunun,” reported Canadian news website cbc.ca.

Why the repatriation?

Saudi Arabia’s parlous rights record has been under heavy scrutiny since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Saudi Arabia has some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women, including a guardianship system that allows male family members to make decisions on behalf of female relatives.

Initially, the Thai authorities said Qunun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia. But as her plight pinballed across social media — including tweets about how she had barricaded herself in a hotel room — they abruptly changed course and allowed her to leave the airport late on Monday in UNHCR’s care. Rahaf is now in talks with the UNHCR.

UNHCR’s involvement

The agency said it was “very grateful” that officials did not send Qunun back against her will. “It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” the UNHCR representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vicentiis, said in a statement.

Thailand is not a signatory to a UN convention on refugees, and asylum seekers are typically deported or wait years to be resettled in third countries.

The UNHCR insists anyone with an asylum claim should not be sent back to the country they fled under the principle of non-refoulement.

Saudi embassy’s take

In an extensive explanation released on Twitter, the Saudi Arabian embassy denied sending officials to Suvarnabhumi airport to meet Qunun as she arrived from Kuwait, where her family live.

It also said her passport had not been confiscated as alleged while explaining it is in contact with her father, a senior regional government official in the kingdom, “to inform him on her situation”. Another official told a Saudi TV channel that Qunun’s father had contacted the mission for “help” in bringing her back.

(With inputs from Agencies)