BANGKOK: The asylum claim of a Saudi woman who resisted deportation from Thailand will take several days to assess, the UN said on Tuesday, as the 18-year-old's family, who she accuses of abusing her, was due to arrive in Bangkok.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun arrived at Bangkok's main airport on a flight from Kuwait after running away from her family, who she alleges subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. Qanun said she planned to seek asylum in Australia, fearing she would be killed if sent back by Thai immigration officials who stopped her at the airport on Sunday.
Saudi Arabia's human rights record has been under heavy scrutiny since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.
Initially, Thai authorities said Qanun would be sent back to Saudi Arabia. But as her plight pinballed across social media -- including tweets about how she had barricaded herself in a hotel room -- they abruptly changed course and allowed her to leave the airport Monday in the care of the UN's refugee agency.
The UNHCR said it was "very grateful" officials did not send Qunun back against her will. "It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps," the UNHCR representative in Thailand, Giuseppe de Vicentiis, said in a statement.
Thailand is not a signatory to a UN convention on refugees, and asylum seekers are typically deported or wait years to be resettled in third countries. The UNHCR insists anyone with an asylum claim should not be sent back to the country they fled under the principle of non-refoulement.
In a short press release distributed to media outside their embassy in Bangkok Tuesday, the Saudi government said it had not demanded her deportation, adding the case is a "family affair", but under the "care and attention" of the embassy.
In an earlier and separate explanation released on Twitter, the embassy also denied sending officials to Suvarnabhumi airport to meet Qanun as she arrived via Kuwait or impounding her passport -- as she alleged.
It also said the embassy had made contact with her father, a senior regional government official in the kingdom, "to inform him of her situation".
Father, Brother to arrive
Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters that Qanun's father and brother were due in Thailand later on Tuesday. He said he would talk to the UN refugee agency about the potential of a meeting between the family members. "Rahaf is not a political asylum case," he insisted. "It is not political at all."
Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has some of the world's toughest restrictions on women, including a guardianship system that allows male family members to make decisions on behalf of female relatives. Qanun has said she believes she will be imprisoned or killed if sent back, and that her family is so strict it once locked her in a room for six months for cutting her hair.
Under the hashtag #SaveRahaf, the young woman's desperate pleas became a social media sensation, and she was able to post live updates and videos from the Bangkok airport in both Arabic and English, racking up more than 80,000 followers.