Saudi asylum seeker Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun has been declared a refugee by the United Nations and is being referred to Australia, the government there said Wednesday.
The development probably ensures that Alqunun, 18, who became an internet sensation in the last week after barricading herself in an airport hotel room in Bangkok, Thailand, won’t have to return to her family, which she said is abusive and made her fear for her life.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees “has referred Ms. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” an Australian government spokesman said. “The Department of Home Affairs will consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals.”
The official declined to elaborate on Alqunun’s chances of resettlement. The U.N. also declined to comment.
Alqunun is in Bangkok, where she fled over the weekend from Kuwait to escape male members of her family. She said she had earlier been beaten and locked in a room for six months for cutting her hair.
She captured widespread attention for live-tweeting her refusal to board a plane back to Kuwait on Monday despite the urging of Thai officials.
Immigration authorities later granted Alqunun entry into Thailand so she could meet with representatives from the U.N. refugee agency.
Even then, Alqunun’s safety was anything but certain. Thailand has a poor record of protecting refugees and asylum seekers. And Alqunun’s father and brother reportedly traveled to Bangkok to work with Saudi diplomats there to pressure Thailand to send Alqunun home.
Alqunun’s plight has focused more attention on Saudi Arabia’s mistreatment of women and girls. Human rights experts say the kingdom engenders a culture of inequality and domestic abuse. Alqunun was able to flee to Thailand only while visiting Kuwait, for example, because Saudi Arabia forbids women to travel without permission from a male guardian.
Human rights advocates were elated Wednesday to learn Alqunun had been declared a refugee and referred to Australia, her original choice for asylum.
“Just two days ago, she was barricaded in a hotel room fighting for her life,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said from Bangkok. “Now we see this wonderful and astonishing turn of events. What's important is to get her safe, so Australia really needs to move quickly to get her out of here."
Robertson said the United Nations refers asylum seekers to countries where it believes they’ll be safest. If Australia rejects Alqunun, her U.N. refugee status makes it easier to appeal to other countries for resettlement.