Australia’s government said Wednesday that it will assess the resettlement case of a Saudi woman who fled from her family now that the United Nations has deemed her a refugee, taking her quest for asylum a step forward.
The Department of Home Affairs confirmed in a statement that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had referred 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement.
Al-Qunun arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait on Saturday, and planned to continue to Australia, where she held a tourist visa. But after being detained by Thai authorities, she refused to board a flight back to Kuwait, barricading herself in an airport hotel room.
Al-Qunun was eventually placed in the care of the UNHCR as her bid for refugee status was considered. Al-Qunun’s father denied physically abusing her or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, among the reasons she gave for her flight, Thailand’s Immigration Police chief said after meeting him Wednesday.
The father said he wants his daughter back but respects her decision, police Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said. Al-Qunun refused to meet with her father, who arrived in the Thai capital on Tuesday. She had said in her online postings that she was afraid of such an encounter.
Australia’s Home Affairs Department said it would “consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals.” Indications from Canberra suggest al-Qunun may receive a sympathetic hearing.
“If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. before the UNHCR’s referral.
The representative in Australia of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said it was encouraging that Al-Qunun was able to highlight her situation using social media. “The unique thing about this case is that she had access to social media, and was able to report on it and bring the world’s attention to her plight,” said Pearson. “I think there are many cases like this that go unreported.”
A Tuesday statement from the Saudi Embassy in Thailand denied interfering in Alqunun’s case, and said it was only monitoring her situation. Describing her case as a “family affair,” it said Saudi officials had neither seized her passport – as al-Qunun had claimed several times – nor demanded her deportation back home.
The embassy and Thai officials earlier said that al-Qunun was stopped by Thai authorities because she did not have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist, which appeared to have raised a red flag about the reasons for her trip.