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World & Nation

Young Saudi woman who accuses family of abuse seeks asylum in Canada, Australia or U.S.

Saudi Arabian young woman seeking for asylum was stopped at Bangkok airport, Samut Prakan, Thailand - 07 Jan 2019
Saudi national Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, left, with Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn, right, at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport on the outskirts of Bangkok on Jan. 7, 2019.
(Thai Immigration Bureau)

A young Saudi woman who staved off deportation from Thailand after her plea for asylum went viral on social media Tuesday called for Canada to grant her sanctuary.

Authorities said the request via Twitter by 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who has said her family in Saudi Arabia is abusive, came as United Nations officials were reviewing her case. She has also called on the United States, Australia and Britain to provide asylum.

“Canada is very concerned by and watching closely the situation of Ms. Rahaf Alqunun,” Stefano Maron, spokesman for Canada’s foreign affairs department, said in an email. “We are in close contact with partners about her situation. Canada will always stand up for human rights, very much including women’s rights.”

Alqunun captured the attention of tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and the international news media during the last several days after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room and refused to board a flight to Kuwait on Monday.

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In a barrage of tweets and interviews with human rights advocates, Alqunun said she was fleeing an abusive family in Saudi Arabia and feared for her life. She said she was locked in a room for six months for cutting her hair and subjected to death threats.

Thai officials said Monday that they would not force Alqunun to leave their country against her will.

Alqunun’s father and brother were reportedly in Bangkok and requested a meeting with her.

“The father and brother want to go and talk to Rahaf but the U.N. will need to approve such talk,” Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn reportedly told journalists.

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Thai authorities initially wanted to deport Alqunun, but later relented so she could be interviewed by representatives of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

“We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back Ms. Alqunun against her will and are extending protection for her,” the agency’s representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vincentiis, said in a statement. “It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps.”

The agency declined to discuss any details about Alqunun’s case or comment on the likelihood of her being granted asylum.

Australia’s government was prepared to offer Alqunun asylum if the United Nations deemed her a refugee, according to Australian news site the New Daily. Australian foreign affairs officials did not respond to a request to confirm the country’s position.

The Canadian Embassy in Bangkok had played a key role in persuading Thai authorities to not deport Alqunun, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. In a tweet, he praised the country’s ambassador to Thailand, Donica Pottie, and her staff for their work.

Canada has seen a surge in acceptances of asylum seekers in recent years because of changes in its processing system in 2012 that shortened the time frame for claims to be heard to 60 days from 18 months, according to Radio Canada.

By comparison, the U.S. asylum process can take months or years and has been further complicated by the government shutdown.

Robertson said it was important for Alqunun to leave Thailand, which he said probably would have deported Alqunun had she not drawn international attention.

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“Had Thailand tried to break down Rahaf’s barricaded door at the hotel and force her on a plane, it would have been in front of the world’s TV cameras and unleashed an incredible wave of condemnation,” he said. “Policymakers realized that simply was not viable.”

Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines the term “refugee” under international law and is signed by 145 state parties.

Thailand is estimated to be home to 130,000 refugees and asylum seekers, which the country deems illegal migrants, according to Asylum Access, a nonprofit advocacy group. About 90% of refugees are from neighboring Myanmar, whose ethnic minorities have spent decades fleeing government forces controlled by the dominant ethnic Bamar.

About 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers of dozens of nationalities live in Thailand’s cities. Advocacy groups say these so-called urban refugees face discrimination and arbitrary detention.

“Thailand has had a very sketchy record on asylum seekers and refugees under the [ruling] military junta,” Robertson said. “That poor record is one of the reasons that Human Rights Watch was so pleasantly ... surprised at the decision of Thailand to permit UNHCR to have access to Rahaf.”

david.pierson@latimes.com | Follow me @dhpierson


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