Thailand says it will protect rights of Saudi woman who fears for her life

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family and barricaded herself inside a Bangkok airport hotel to avoid being expelled by Thai authorities has left the airport after talks with the United Nations refugee agency, an official said on Monday.

Al-Qunun wants to seek asylum in Australia, but the country hasn't commented

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, centre, speaks with Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn, right and an unidentified UNHCR officer at a transit hotel inside the Suvarnabhumi international airport in Samut Prakan province, on the outskirts of Bangkok. (Thailand Immigration Bureau/EFE/EPA)

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family and barricaded herself inside a Bangkok airport hotel to avoid being expelled by Thai authorities has left the airport after talks with the United Nations refugee agency, an official said on Monday.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has been at the international airport since Saturday following her arrival from Kuwait. She has said she fears she will be killed if she is returned to her family. Her relatives have not commented on her accusations of abuse, and Reuters was not able to reach them.

Thai immigration officials had planned to put Qunun on a flight back to Kuwait on Monday, but relented after her online pleas drew international attention.

She told Reuters via text and audio messages she had fled Kuwait during a family visit there, and had planned to travel to Australia to seek asylum.

A representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) met Qunun at the airport and was to discuss the case with Thai immigration officials.

After the meeting, Thailand's immigration chief said she would not be expelled.

"We will take her into Bangkok and provide her with safe shelter under the care of the UNHCR," immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters on Monday evening.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun was photographed in a hotel room at an international airport in Bangkok. The image was made from video released by Qunun and Human Rights Watch. (Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch via AP)

It was not clear where Qunun was being sent after leaving the hotel.

Surachate said the UNHCR would work on processing Qunun's request for refugee status. Giuseppe de Vincentis, the UNHCR representative in Thailand, said the Thai government had given assurances Qunun would not be expelled to any country where she might be in danger while her case was being processed.

Qunun posted a video on Twitter on Monday of her barricading her hotel door with a table and a mattress. She said her family was powerful in Saudi society but she did not identify them.

"They will kill me," Qunan told Reuters. "My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things."

Asked why she was seeking refuge in Australia, she said: "Physical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months. They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education.

"They won't let me drive or travel. I am oppressed. I love life and work, and I am very ambitious, but my family is preventing me from living."

Saudi officials aware of case

Surachate, however, said Qunun did not have a visa for Australia. The Australian Embassy said it had no immediate comment.

Saudi culture and guardianship policy requires women to have permission from a male relative to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment. The deeply conservative Muslim country lifted a ban on women drivers last year.

UNHCR representative Giuseppe De Vincentiis, left, walks with Thai immigration authorities on Monday to the Bangkok hotel where Qunun is staying. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

The Saudi foreign ministry said in a tweet that its embassy was in touch with the woman's father and the Thai government, but its diplomats had not met or communicated with her.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thailand should not send Qunun back to her family because she says she faces danger.

Contradicting earlier accounts from Thai officials, Surachate said Thai authorities had been contacted by the Saudis before deciding to deny Qunun entry to the country.

"The Saudi Arabia embassy contacted the immigration police … and said that the girl had run away from her parents and they fear for her safety," he said.

"We acknowledged this and checked her paperwork. She had a passport but no return ticket, no travel plan, and no destination or hotel reservation in Thailand … so per airport security procedures, immigration denied her entry."