Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, described a life of unrelenting abuse at the hands of her family, who live in the city of Hail, in northern Saudi Arabia. She said she was once locked in a room for six months because she had cut her hair in a way that her family did not approve of. Now, she may be forced to go back to them.
Bangkok: An 18-year-old Saudi girl escaped from her family during a holiday in Kuwait and boarded a plane for Thailand from where she hoped to fly to Australia and seek asylum. With a fire to assert her independence, she barricaded herself in her hotel room on Monday to avoid her imminent deportation from Bangkok airport.
Her story has caught the global media attention due to her various social media posts on Twitter.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, said that her family was abusive and she will be killed if she returns to her family.
After slipping away from her family, she got off the plane in Bangkok and said that a man was waiting, her name written on a placard. He said he would help her get a Thai visa, and disappeared with her passport.
Instead, Alqunun said, the man came back with other men she believes were Thai security officers and a representative of Kuwait Airlines. They said that her family had filed a missing person report about her and that she had to return to Kuwait on a flight late Monday morning.
“They will kill me,” she said by telephone Sunday evening from a hotel at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, where she was being kept overnight.
Human rights advocates urged the Thai government to allow Alqunun to continue on her journey to Australia or to seek asylum in Thailand. They called on the United Nations Refugee Agency to help her.
“Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will,” said Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation.”
Thailand has a history of sending refugees back to autocratic countries, including China, Pakistan and Turkey, said the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson.
In November, the Thai authorities arrested a former Bahrain soccer player, Hakeem al-Araibi, who had been granted refugee status in Australia after speaking out against a powerful Bahraini soccer official.
Araibi had come to Thailand for his honeymoon but was stopped at the same Bangkok airport as Alqunun after Bahrain sought his arrest through Interpol. He remains in custody, awaiting a decision on Bahrain’s extradition request.
“Basically, Thailand is open for business sending refugees and asylum seekers back to their authoritarian governments,” Robertson said.
In the interview, Alqunun described a life of unrelenting abuse at the hands of her family, who live in the city of Hail, in northern Saudi Arabia. She said she was once locked in a room for six months because she had cut her hair in a way that her family did not approve of. And she said her family used to beat her, mostly her brother.
Saudi Arabia, Ms. Alqunun said, is “like a prison.”
“I can’t make my own decisions,” she said. “Even about my own hair, I can’t make decisions.”
Alqunun said that when she was 16, she tried to kill herself. When her family did not seek help for her, she said, she started planning her escape.
Even at age 18, though, Alqunun could not simply leave Saudi Arabia on her own. Women in the kingdom need the approval of a “male guardian” to travel, usually a father, husband or even a son.
Her chance for freedom came on Wednesday when her family took a trip to Kuwait, which does not have the same restrictions on women. On Saturday, she caught the plane to Thailand, where she had reserved a hotel and an outbound flight.
Her plan was to stay there until she could leave for Australia, where she was supposed to meet a woman she described as “a Saudi refugee” who would help her.
Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, the head of Thailand’s immigration agency, said Alqunun had been denied a visa to enter Thailand because she did not have sufficient money. She also lacked the necessary documents to gain entry to the country or continue on to Australia, he said.
In a similar case in 2017, a 24-year-old Saudi woman Dina Ali Lasloom was forced to return to her family in Saudi Arabia while in transit in the Philippines on her way to Australia and has not been publicly heard from since. An airline security official told activists that Lasloom was heard "screaming and begging for help" as men carried her "with duct tape on her mouth, feet and hands" at the airport.
Alqunun said it appeared that the Saudis and Thai officials were working together. At one point, she said, she was required to sign documents written in Thai that she did not understand. She said her passport had been returned to her but was later taken again and handed over to Kuwait Airways to help ensure that she boarded her return flight.
If she is returned to Saudi Arabia, Alqunun could face criminal charges of parental disobedience or harming the reputation of the kingdom, Human Rights Watch said.
Saudi Arabian men consider themselves guardians of their families’ honour and often punish family members, especially girls and women, who are said to have brought dishonour on the family. In extreme cases, the family members are killed.
Alqunun said she was particularly concerned about what her family might do to her because in describing her plight on Twitter, she renounced religion.
“They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism,” she said. “They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”
Alqunun posted reports and videos on Twitter in a bid to build support.
“I’m the girl who run away from Kuwait to Thailand,” she wrote in one post. “I’m in real danger because the Saudi embassy trying to forcing me to go back to Saudi Arabia, while I’m at the airport waiting for my second flight.”
On Sunday, she was still hoping to make it to Australia.
“I want to be protected in a country that will give me my rights,” she said, “and allow me to live a normal life.”