A Saudi woman who is trying to come to Australia in a desperate attempt to flee her family, claims authorities in Thailand stopped her in transit, confiscated her passport and are forcing her to fly back to Kuwait.
18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun claims to have been trapped at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport since she arrived on Saturday (local time).
Alqunun said she had been abused by her family and would be killed if she is returned home, because she renounced Islam.
She wishes to reach Australia and apply for asylum, but claims a Saudi official confiscated her passport on arrival in Bangkok after her father reported her for travelling without a ‘guardian’.
Saudi Arabia requires that a woman have the consent of a male relative — usually a father or husband — to obtain a passport, travel abroad or marry.
MailOnline reports the teen’s father told a Thai airport official that his daughter was mentally ill, however no evidence of her health has been provided.
“They took my passport,” she told AFP, adding that her male guardian had reported her for travelling “without his permission”.
Alqunun claims her family had taken a trip to Kuwait, where she made her escape and purchased flights to Thailand and Australia.
This morning Alqunun tweeted that she has been forced to return to Kuwait via Kuwait Airways flight KU 412 from Suvarnabhumi Airport, adding a plea for help to stop it from leaving.
Activists following the case have called on the public to book tickets on the flight so they can prevent it from leaving.
She called upon US President Donald Trump and UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt to intervene. She has also pleaded with prominent human rights lawyers to help.
The teen wrote of being in “real danger” if she is forced to return to her family. She also posted a copy of her passport to provide evidence of her identity.
In a video posted to her Twitter account, Alqunun had pushed a table up against the door of her hotel room, apparently to stop anyone from entering.
A Thai friend who is with Alqunun at the hotel said immigration officers came to her room late on Sunday afternoon and told her she would be sent back to Saudi Arabia today.
“They said ‘you have three minutes to pack, and you will be flown back to Kuwait tomorrow … then returned to Saudi Arabia’,” she told reporters.
However, the teenager spoke to authorities and later returned to the hotel, human rights workers said.
‘THEY WILL KILL ME’
Alqunun claims she will be imprisoned or worse if she is sent back to Saudi Arabia
She told Human Rights Watch she was fleeing abuse from her family, including beatings and death threats from her male relatives who forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair.
“I’m sure 100 per cent they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail,” she told AFP adding that she was “scared” and “losing hope”.
She also said she had asserted her independence, but had been forced to pray and wear a hijab and alleged she had been beaten by her brother.
“I am giving my family 48 hours (to) either stop or I will publish everything that will incriminate them,” she threatened on Twitter.
For runaway Saudi women, fleeing can be a matter of life and death, and they are almost always doing so to escape male relatives.
STOPPED IN THAILAND
Alqunun claims her passport was taken after she was told by someone that they could get her a visa for Thailand.
She said after this several people came and told her they knew she had run away, that her family wants her back and that she should return to Saudi Arabia.
It’s understood a diplomat from the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok seized her passport to prevent her travelling to Australia.
Her father and brother are awaiting her arrival in Kuwait.
Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affairs in Bangkok Abdullah al-Shuaibi denied Saudi authorities were involved in any way.
He was quoted in the Saudi press saying that Alqunun was stopped by Thai authorities because she did not appear to have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist.
He said the Saudi Embassy has no authority to stop anyone at the airport and that this decision rests with Thai officials.
“She was stopped by airport authorities because she violated Thai laws,” he was quoted as saying in Sabq, a state-aligned Saudi news website.
“The embassy is only monitoring the situation,” al-Shuaibi said.
Human Rights Watch Asia division deputy director Phil Robertson said the organisation was trying to lodge an asylum claim with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
He also questioned a statement by Thailand’s Immigration chief to the BBC that Alqunun did not have a travel visa, which prevented her from entering Thailand.
Mr Robertson said Ms Alqunun was in transit to Australia when she was detained and did not need a visa, which is available on arrival anyway.
“What is truly appalling is how the Saudi Arabian government has acted in sending an official to physically seize her passport from her in Bangkok airport international transit,” he said.
“She is 18 years old, she has an Australian visa, and she has the right to travel where she wishes and no government should interfere in that.”
Mr Robertson said someone in the Thai government “needs to explain why diplomats from Saudi Arabia are allowed to walk in closed areas of the Bangkok airport, seizing one of their citizen’s passports”.
WHY DO SAUDI WOMEN FLEE?
Alqunun’s concerns of returning to her family in Saudi Arabia mirror that of other Saudi women who have tried to flee abusive or restrictive conditions.
A Saudi activist familiar with other cases of females who’ve run away said often the women are young, inexperienced and unprepared for the obstacles and risks involved in seeking asylum when they attempt to flee.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion, the activist said there have been instances where Saudi women runaways were stopped by authorities in Hong Kong or the Philippines en route to Australia or New Zealand.
In some cases, Saudi authorities have been involved in forcing women to return to their families and in other cases local authorities suspect the women of seeking asylum and deport them.
Saudi women runaways have increasingly turned to social media to amplify their calls for help.
In 2017, Dina Lasloom triggered a firestorm online when she was stopped en route to Australia where she planned to seek asylum.
She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia and was not publicly heard from again, according to activists tracking her whereabouts.
The latest incident comes against the backdrop of intense scrutiny on Saudi Arabia over its investigation and handling of the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which has renewed criticism of the kingdom’s rights record.