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Saudi teen may get asylum in Australia after plea goes viral

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun fled her family claiming she feared for her life.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun on January 7, 2019, in Thailand.
Immigration police via AP
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

A Saudi teen who made international headlines this week after fleeing to Thailand to seek asylum from her abusive family may now get what she’s desperately been seeking.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has referred Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun’s case to the Australian government. The Australian Department of Home Affairs confirmed this Wednesday, saying in a statement that the government “will consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals.”

A UNHCR representative declined to comment to Vox, but in a statement to reporters earlier Wednesday, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said that Alqunun had left the airport in Bangkok, where she had been for about 48 hours, and is now in a “safe location.”

Alqunun’s plight garnered international attention after she and advocates used social media to broadcast her appeals for asylum. Alqunun said she slipped away from her family, who she says was vacationing in Kuwait, and boarded a plane to Thailand, with the hope of reaching Australia. She’s since asked other countries, including the US and Canada, to consider her case.

Alqunun claims her family abused her physically and emotionally, and she feared for her life if she returned to them.

Thai authorities intercepted the 18-year-old after she touched down in Bangkok, where she says they confiscated her passport. Thai officials planned to deport her back to her family in Kuwait, despite her claims that she feared for her life.

Alqunun resisted, barricading herself in an airport hotel room and demanding to speak to UN officials. The international agency responded to her calls, and Thai authorities have since dropped their bid to force her to leave the country.

Her family still hasn’t spoken publicly to the press, but Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters that Alqunun’s father, who flew to Thailand along with her brother, denied allegations that the family had abused her. “He said that he has been taking good care of his daughter, he never forced her or hurt her,” Hakparn said.

Alqunun’s future is still uncertain, though, and it’s unclear how long the process of adjudicating her asylum request will take. According to UNHCR, refugee resettlement takes six weeks for urgent cases and an average of a year for most others.

But Alqunun’s case is extraordinary for how it’s played out in the public sphere.

Alqunun’s appeal also comes as Saudi Arabia is still under pressure after the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi raised troubling questions about repression in the kingdom under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudi teen’s viral plea forced real — and quick — international action, and put Saudi Arabia under scrutiny once again. Whether Australia will ultimately grant Alqunun asylum, though, remains to be seen.

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