‘You saved Rahaf’s life’: online outcry kept ‘terrified’ Saudi woman safe, says friend

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Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was buoyed by thousands of messages during Thai ordeal, says Nourah Alharbi

Jamie Fullerton in Kuala Lumpur and Helen Davidson–  The Guardian

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the Saudi Arabian woman who fled her family and is now under UN protection in Thailand, has been sustained through the “terrifying” ordeal by thousands of online messages of support that probably saved her life, a friend has said.

Nourah Alharbi, 20, told the Guardian: “Yesterday, they [social media supporters] made the difference in Rahaf’s life. You saved Rahaf’s life yesterday: the people, the media.”

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Alharbi said Qunun was buoyed when she saw how many messages about her were being posted online. “She couldn’t believe it. Today when I was calling her … [she said] she can see the thousands of messages, all of them supporting her. She’s terrified and stressed, and when she saw the messages it really made a difference for her.”

Now based in Sydney, Alharbi said she fled Saudi Arabia herself after suffering abuse from her family, and is seeking asylum in Australia. She has kept in close contact with Qunun throughout her ordeal.

She mentioned the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman who in April 2017 was returned to Saudi Arabia from the Philippines against her will and whose fate is unclear. “She didn’t get that [social media] support and that’s why she’s in Saudi Arabia now – she’s disappeared,” Alharbi said.

On Sunday, Qunun, 18, barricaded herself in a hotel room inside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport to prevent her forcible return to a family she claimed would kill her, following her renouncing of Islam.

She tweeted about her situation, and the Twitter hashtag #SaveRahaf soon gained support. Supporters demanded she stay in Thailand rather than be returned to Kuwait, the point of her departure, and lobbied governments to offer her asylum.

Alharbi said Qunun was keen to leave the country after hearing reports her father had travelled to Thailand but that she felt safe for the time being. “She called me and said the UN were good and were protecting her,” she said. “Security keep coming and asking about her. She wants to tell everyone that she wants to go outside Thailand – to any safe country.”

Alharbi claimed Australia had cancelled the tourist visa on which Qunun was originally travelling. “I don’t know [the reason] because they’re not answering,” she said. The Australian government is yet to respond to the claim.

Urging people to keep posting messages about Qunun, Alharbi said: “Yesterday we won, but this is not the big winning. We got her out [of the airport] but we win when we get her out from Thailand. And we will, properly.”

The Australian government said on Monday night Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s situation was “deeply concerning” and it had lobbied the Thai government and the UNHCR to allow her to formally claim asylum.

UNHCR staff were interviewing her on Tuesday after meeting her the day before.

“It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” UNHCR’s Thailand representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis said in a statement.

“We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back (Qunun) against her will and are extending protection to her,” he said.

Qunun was detained on arrival at Bangkok and denied entry to Thailand while en route to Australia, where she said she intended to seek asylum. The Guardian confirmed on Monday Qunun had a valid three-month tourist visa for Australia, issued to her Saudi passport.

Qunun said she was abducted after arriving in Bangkok and had her passport confiscated by Saudi Arabian diplomatic staff.

She demanded access to the UNHCR and barricaded herself inside her hotel room in fear she would be forced on to a plane after Kuwait Airways officials had come to her door, but Monday’s 11.15am flight departed without her.

Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Thailand has denied reports that Riyadh had requested her extradition, the embassy said on Twitter.

The head of Thailand’s immigration police, General Surachate Hakparn, had previously said Qunun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia because she was “unsafe” without a guardian in Thailand, and claimed she did not have the documentation to go on to Australia.

But late on Monday he promised she would not be deported and agreed to consult the UNCHR. He later said she had been taken to a safe house for her asylum claim to be processed. “If she goes home it will be dangerous for her so Thailand is ready to help,” he told media. “We are working with the foreign affairs ministry and UNHCR and today we will allow her entry to Thailand. UNHCR is now taking care of her and working on her asylum claim.”

Surachate said Qunun’s father was due to arrive in Bangkok on Monday night and that officials would establish whether she wanted to return to the Middle East with him. “As of now, she does not wish to go back and we will not force her. She won’t be sent anywhere tonight,” he told reporters. “Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die.”

Qunun confirmed on Twitter she was under the protection of the UNHCR and her passport had been returned.

Rahaf Mohammed رهف محمد القنون (@rahaf84427714)

Hey I’m Rahaf. My father just arrived as I heard witch worried and scared me a lot and I want to go to another country that I seek asylum in
But at least I feel save now under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities. And I finally got my passport back??❤️ pic.twitter.com/pQER7HDVi7

January 7, 2019

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs said it was monitoring the case closely. “The claims made by Ms Al-Qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning,” a spokesman said on Monday night.

“The Australian embassy in Thailand has made representations to both the Thai government and the Bangkok office of the UNHCR to seek assurances that Ms Al-Qunun can access the UNHCR’s refugee status determination process in Thailand.”

Qunun said in a video posted on social media from inside the airport that she was trying to escape from her family because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. She has appealed for help from Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.

Her case has brought international attention to the obstacles women face in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom also faces intense scrutiny over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which has renewed criticism of its human rights record.

 

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