An 18-year-old Saudi woman held at Bangkok airport who says she is fleeing domestic abuse has taken to social media to appeal for help and prevent her deportation by Thai authorities.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun said she fled Kuwait while her family was visiting the Gulf country and had planned to travel on from Thailand to Australia to seek asylum. She said she was detained after leaving her plane in Bangkok and told she would be sent back to Kuwait.
Alqunun on Monday shared photos of herself on Twitter barricaded into the airport hotel room where she has been held since her arrival the previous day, as officials and police gathered outside the door to take her to a plane that would return her to Kuwait.
Alqunun appealed for the UN’s refugee agency to help her, and urged other passengers and travellers to take action.
“I’m not leaving my room until I see UNHCR,” she said in a video posted on Twitter. “I want asylum.”
Rights group Amnesty International released a statement on Monday saying the arbitrary confiscation of a passport “violates the right to freedom of movement”. The group also said that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has requested access to Rahaf, which the Thai authorities have yet to provide.
“The Thai authorities are bound by the general prohibition not to transfer persons to any place where they would face a real risk of serious human rights abuses. Rahaf is entitled to fair and effective safeguards against any deportation and to international protection,” Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Middle East director of campaigns, said in the statement.
Alqunun was detained after she got off her flight in Bangkok, and was scheduled to be sent back on Kuwait Airways flight 412 leaving the Thai capital at 11:15am local time (04:15 GMT) on Monday.
She said she had originally planned to spend a few days in Thailand, a popular destination for medical treatment, so her actions would not create suspicion when she left Kuwait.
“When I landed at the airport, someone came and said he would process the [Thai] visa but he took my passport. He came back with what seemed to be airport security and said that my parents objected and said I must return to Saudi Arabia via Kuwait Airways,” she told the Reuters news agency.
Her claim that her passport had been seized was backed by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Alqunun told the AFP news agency on Sunday that her male guardian had reported her for travelling “without his permission”.
She said she was trying to flee her family, who she accused of subjecting her to physical and psychological abuse.
Alqunun said she was certain she would be jailed if she were sent back.
“My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she said.
“I’m sure 100 percent they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail,” she said, adding that she was “scared” and “losing hope”.
The UNHCR said that according to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum seekers cannot be returned to their country of origin if they fear their life is under threat.
“The UN Refugee Agency has been following developments closely and has been trying to seek access from the Thai authorities to meet with Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, to assess her need for international protection,” it said in a statement.
Georg Schmidt, the German ambassador to Thailand, wrote on Twitter that he had “great concern” for Alqunun and was in touch with the Thai authorities and the embassies of other countries about her situation.
Surachate Hakparn, Thailand’s immigration chief, confirmed to AFP that Rahaf had been detained.
“She had no further documents such as return ticket or money,” he said, insisting her case was a “family” matter.
“She ran away from her family to avoid marriage and she is concerned she may be in trouble returning to Saudi Arabia. We sent officials to take care of her now,” he said.
Thailand insisted on Monday that Alqunun would be deported despite her desperate appeals.
‘Halt any deportation’
Phil Robertson, HRW Asia deputy director, criticised the actions of the Thai authorities.
“What country allows diplomats to wander around the closed section of the airport and seize the passports of the passengers?” he said, adding that there is “impunity” within the family unit in Saudi Arabia to abuse women.
“Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty and other serious harm if returned against their will,” Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW, also said in a statement. “Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation, and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee.”
Another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was stopped in transit in the Philippines in April 2017 when she attempted to flee her family.
An airline security official told activists that Lasloom was heard “screaming and begging for help” as men carried her “with duct tape on her mouth, feet and hands” at the airport.
There was no immediate comment by the Saudi embassy in Thailand and officials in Riyadh.