On January 5, someone on Twitter sent up a call for help: “I’m the girl who run [sic] away from Kuwait to Thailand. 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.” Her name was later revealed to be Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun; the 18-year-old student, who said she was fleeing an abusive family back in Saudi Arabia, has been granted refugee status by the U.N., and is now seeking asylum with any country that will take her, saying she fears she will be killed if she returns home.
She is currently in Thailand with the UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations, and has continued to update her Twitter with information and pleas for help. Here’s what we know so far.
Al-Qunun is seeking asylum because she fears for her life in Saudi Arabia.
According to the New York Times, al-Qunun was on vacation with her family in Kuwait, which has different travel laws than her home country of Saudi Arabia. (There, guardianship laws mandate that women seek approval from a male family member on issues like education, travel, and permission to marry.) She was reportedly able to separate herself from them, and boarded a plane in order to seek a new life for herself, away from a family whom she says abused her.
She told the Times that her home life is “like a prison,” and that she was once punished for six months because she cut her hair in a way her family did not approve of. “I can’t make my own decisions,” she said. It was after she tried to die by suicide when she was 16, but did not receive any medical help or support from her family, that she decided to run away, she added.
She also expressed fears that, by using social media to signal-boost her escape, she would face even more punishment. “I shared my story and my pictures on social media and my father is so angry because I did this … I can’t study and work in my country, so I want to be free and study and work as I want,” she explained on Twitter.
But when she got off the plane in Thailand, al-Qunun was detained by Thai officials; the Times reported that she was instructed to board a return flight on Kuwait Airlines on Monday night. Instead, she barricaded herself inside her hotel room, saying she fears that her family would abuse or kill her for running away. “My life is in danger,” she told Reuters.
In addition to posting her own updates, al-Qunun has granted Twitter access to a friend named Noura, who says they met in an online forum for Saudi feminists. Noura told the BBC she was a former Muslim woman who also left Saudi Arabia. According to Elle, al-Qunun is an atheist; she fears being charged with apostasy, as freedom of religion is not guaranteed under Saudi law.
There are multiple conflicting reports as to why she was first detained in Thailand.
The BBC notes that Thailand initially said al-Qunun was being deported because she did not have requirements for a Thai visa; al-Qunun refuted these claims, given that she says she already has an Australian visa and never intended to stay in Thailand. According to the BBC, Thailand does not provide any legal protection to asylum seekers, as it is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.
In November 2018, officials in Thailand detained Hakeem al-Araibi, a political refugee and former soccer star who fled Bahrain in 2014 and was granted legal refuge in Australia. He was on vacation in Thailand when an Interpol red notice, which alerts authorities about active arrest warrants, caused him to be detained. He is reportedly still in Thai custody.
In 2017, another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloon, was detained in the Philippines during a layover and later forced to return to Saudi Arabia. Elle notes that her current whereabouts are unknown.
Al-Qunun is currently under UNHCR protection in Thailand, and she has been granted refugee status by the U.N.
In a statement provided to the Cut on Monday, January 7, UNHCR said it would be assessing al-Qunun’s protection claim. UNHCR’s Representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vincentiis, added that the organization is “very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back Ms. al-Qunun against her will and are extending protection for her. It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps.”
According to the New Daily, Australian officials said on Tuesday that they would grant al-Qunun’s asylum status if the UNHCR finds her petition credible.
On Wednesday, January 9, the New York Times reported that al-Qunun had been granted refugee status by the U.N., according to Australian officials. (The UNHCR does not comment on the specific status of individual cases.) Per NBC News, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs confirmed that al-Qunun’s case had been referred to them, and that it would “consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals.”
This post has been updated throughout.