Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the 18-year-old Saudi woman who says she was fleeing threats of abuse by her family and barricaded herself inside a hotel room at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, has now been moved to Thai custody. She announced the news on her Twitter feed, @rahaf84427714, which is apparently being manned by friends who are in touch with her.
Australian reporter Sophie McNeill, who knows Qunun and who apparently was in the hotel room with her, also tweeted: “We’ve now been advised by Thai immigration that she has been squirreled out of the airport to “somewhere safe.”
The saga began Sunday night after Qunun said Saudi authorities tried to have her forcibly sent back home—where she said she’d almost certainly be killed by abusive male relatives. She was en route to Australia, where she says she has a valid student visa.
Qunun’s long standoff with Thai authorities triggered a frantic social-media campaign to prevent her from being sent back to her family in Saudi Arabia and a flurry of desperate pleas for Western diplomats to step in. In the end, Qunun managed to avoid being forced onto a plane and sent back to Kuwait, where her male relatives were said to be waiting for her.
“My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait,” she told Reuters by phone from her hotel room. “My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”
Initially, Thai authorities reportedly refused to let her have access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees so she could file an asylum claim. Thailand is not a signatory to the UNHCR and is not required to follow its protocol.
On Monday, UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming tweeted directly to Qunun that representatives were at the airport trying to gain access to her hotel room. It is unclear whether Qunun’s room was being guarded from the outside or if access was blocked by security officials from the lobby.
Fleming later tweeted that Thai authorities had authorized the visit. “The Thai authorities have granted UNHCR, @Refugees access to Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun at Bangkok airport to assess her need for international refugee protection and find an immediate solution for her situation.”
Late Monday, UNHCR released a statement confirming their representatives indeed did meet with Qunun but that, due to confidentially and protection issues, “we will not be in a position to comment on the details of the meeting.” Qunun did tweet later that she was granted protection by the agency just as she announced another disturbing development in her saga: the arrival of her father in Bangkok.
“My father just arrived as I heard witch [sic] 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.”
On Monday, Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn held a press conference about the young woman’s situation in the Bangkok airport. He said they would not deport the woman to Saudi Arabia, but would cooperate with Saudi officials to avoid tensions between the two nations.
On Sunday night, after barricading herself into the tiny airport hotel room Thai authorities initially put her in, Qunun posted images to Twitter of messages she said she was receiving from male relatives during the standoff.
“I’m being threatening by my cousin that I will be slaughter,” she said of one message.
Qunun took to Twitter to beg for help after she had been told she could not board a flight to Australia, saying Saudi authorities had her passport seized and were forcing Thai authorities to send her back home.
“Saudi Arabia’s embassy also said to the Bangkok airport if they don’t flee [sic] me back to Kuwait they will literally KIDNAP me,” she wrote.
Both Thai authorities and the Saudi Arabian embassy in Bangkok initially dismissed her allegations, saying she simply didn’t have the proper documents and had violated local laws by not having a return ticket or tourist itinerary.
Hakparn initially told Agence France-Presse that Qunun was trying to escape an arranged marriage, describing the matter as a “family problem.”
The Saudi embassy insisted it “does not have the authority to stop her at the airport or anywhere else.”
But Abdulilah al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, reportedly told Saudi-owned station Rotana Khalijial that Qunun’s father had contacted the embassy and asked for “help” in getting her back.
Writer Mona Eltahawy, who translated many of Qunun’s Arabic-language tweets into English, wrote on Twitter that the young woman’s father had been identified as a Saudi governor—meaning he’d likely have more power to have her repatriated. That claim could not be independently verified.
Qunun said in a video posted to YouTube that she’d fled her family in Kuwait and had denounced her religion. She said she had acquired all the necessary documents to enter Thailand, but Saudi officials from the embassy had confiscated everything.
“All of this is a plot by the Saudi Embassy to keep me detained here and to return to Kuwait,” she said.
Qunun told Human Rights Watch she fled to escape physical abuse from male relatives. She said she’d previously been beaten, threatened with death, and was once forced to stay in her room for six months for cutting her hair.
“I’m sure 100% they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail,” she said.
Under Saudi Arabia’s repressive guardianship laws, Qunun could face criminal charges for her escape upon returning home, in addition to punishment for “harming the reputation of the kingdom” by publicly pleading for help, according to Human Rights Watch. The rights group warned she could also face “honor-related violence” from male relatives.
In 2017, another Saudi woman, Dina Lasloom, 24, tried to escape her family by flying to Australia via the Philippines, where she was allegedly taken from the arrivals hall at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, wrapped up like a mummy and sent back to her family. She was never heard from again, despite an international outcry and reports that she was immediately killed by an uncle upon her return to the kingdom.