Saudi teen runaway in Bangkok is 'legitimate refugee': UN

Saudi teen runaway in Bangkok is 'legitimate refugee': UN

This handout picture taken and released by the Thai Immigration Bureau on Monday shows 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (centre) being escorted by a Thai immigration officer (right) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok. (AFP photo)
This handout picture taken and released by the Thai Immigration Bureau on Monday shows 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (centre) being escorted by a Thai immigration officer (right) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok. (AFP photo)

The UN has said an 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family is a legitimate refugee and has asked Australia to resettle her, Canberra said Wednesday, as the Twitter-led campaign to grant her asylum edged towards resolution.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Ms Qunun was stopped by authorities at Bangkok's main airport as she arrived on a flight from Kuwait on the weekend after running away from her family, who she says subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.

Ms Qunun's father, accompanied by her brother, arrived in Bangkok, and denied any physical abuse of his daughter, or any attempt to force her into an arranged marriage.

She refused to meet with them.

Thailand initially said it would deport her at the request of Saudi embassy officials, barring her from travelling on to Australia where Ms Qunun said she had intended to claim asylum.

But armed with a phone, she barricaded herself into an airside hotel room and fought back -- live-tweeting her fears of deportation in a campaign that swiftly galvanised international support and prompted a sharp U-turn by Thai officials.

Ms Qunun is now in the care of the UN's refugee agency in Bangkok, which is processing her case.

"The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Ms Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement," Australia's Department of Home Affairs confirmed in a statement.

The department said it will "consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals".

Australian officials have strongly hinted that Ms Qunun's request will be accepted.

"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 had said before the UN determination was public.

Ms Qunun's desperate tweets ricocheted across social media with the #SaveRahaf hashtag drawing an outpouring of support but also the bile of some hardliners in her native country.

She only joined the social media site at the start of this month but has quickly racked up more than 100,000 followers.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said Ms Qunun had renounced Islam, which puts her at "serious risk" of prosecution in Saudi Arabia.

Her father and brother arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but Ms Qunun "refused to see" them, according to Thai immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn, who has been caught up in the international firestorm since Ms Qunun's arrival.

He said the family's patriarch had met with the UNHCR on Wednesday morning and will return to "her country" later today.

"Her father is relieved that she is safe," Surachate said, adding that the "UNHCR will find a third country that will accept her in two days".

A UNHCR representative said "the process is still ongoing".

On Sunday Ms Qunun told AFP her family was "abusive" and once locked her in a room for six months just for cutting her hair.

Fleeing them while travelling in Kuwait throws her into conflict with Saudi Arabia's "guardianship" system, which allows male family members to make decisions on behalf of female relatives, she said. Saudi religious law forbids her to travel alone without permission of her male guardian.

That makes it "100%" certain she will be killed by her family if she is returned to Saudi, she added.

Footage released by Thai immigration shows Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, Saudi embassy charge d'affaires in Bangkok, complaining in a meeting Tuesday with Surachate that Ms Qunun's smartphone should have been confiscated.

"When she arrived, she open a new (Twitter) account and her followers grew to 45,000 in one day," he said in Arabic.

"It would have been better if they had confiscated her mobile instead of her passport."

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok said it "did not demand her deportation" and that the case is "a family affair".

The ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has come under fire since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country's consulate in Istanbul last year.

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The human rights group Amnesty International said on Wednesday it welcomed the decision by UNHCR to grant refugee status to the teenage Saudi runaway. It said her case had inspired millions and should remind people of the bravery and sacrifices of people who flee their native lands for safety.

It praised Thailand for its actions in Ms Qunun's case, but said the country had not treated other asylum-seekers in the same responsible manner.

It noted that Hakeem al-Araibi, a refugee and "torture survivor" from Bahrain granted residence in Australia, has been detained by Thailand since November awaiting a hearing on a Bahraini extradition request.

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(Reuters video)


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