Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand, on January 7 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Picture: TWITTER/ @RAHAF84427714/VIA REUTERS
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand, on January 7 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Picture: TWITTER/ @RAHAF84427714/VIA REUTERS

Sydney/Bangkok — Australia is considering taking in an 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her, after the UN refugee agency referred her case for consideration, the Australian government said on Wednesday.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrived in Bangkok on Saturday appealing for asylum. Australia said it would consider resettling her if the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deemed her a refugee.

“The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” said Australia’s department of homeland security.

The department said it would consider the referral “in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals”. It declined to comment further.

The UNHCR office in Thailand also declined to comment.

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne is due in Bangkok on Thursday for a visit arranged earlier, during which she will discuss the case of Bahrain footballer Hakeem Alaraibi, who has refugee status in Australia but is in jail in Thailand.

Qunun was initially denied entry to Thailand when she arrived on Saturday. She soon started posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport saying she had “escaped Kuwait” and her life would be in danger if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, a campaign sprang up on Twitter, spread by a loose network of activists around the world, prompting the Thai government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

She was allowed to enter Thailand and on Tuesday began the process of seeking asylum in a third country.

She has refused to meet her father and brother who flew to Bangkok this week, Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said.

Footballer in jail

Qunun’s case has drawn new global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have to have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

It comes at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

While Payne may discuss the Qunun case with her Thai counterpart, it was only Alaraibi who was mentioned in an Australian statement ahead of her trip.

Thai authorities arrested and charged Alaraibi, a Bahraini footballer who has a refugee status in Australia, late in 2018.

Bahrain made a request to the Thai government to have him extradited and he is in jail, waiting for a hearing to decide his case.

“Alaraibi was granted permanent residency by the Australian government in recognition of his status as a refugee,” Payne said ,  adding she would seek his safe return to Australia.

Rights group Amnesty International said Thai authorities should “show humanity” to Alaraibi the same way they had to Qunun.

“We welcome the leadership shown by the Thai authorities in Rahaf’s case,” the group’s Middle East director of campaigns, Samah Hadid, said.

“No person should be deported to a country where they are at risk of serious human rights violations … the humanity shown to Rahaf must not be a one-off.”

Reuters