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A Saudi teen fled her family to seek asylum abroad. Now the whole world is watching.

The 18-year-old escaped to Thailand and barricaded herself in hotel room, demanding to speak to United Nations officials.

Rahaf Mohammed
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun/Human Rights Watch via AP
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

An 18-year-old Saudi woman has drawn international attention after barricading herself inside a Thailand airport hotel room and demanding asylum, claiming that she feared for her life if she returned to her family.

“I’m not leaving my room until I see UNHCR,” Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun said in a video posted on Twitter late Sunday, referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the international organization in charge of refugees. “I want asylum.”

The Saudi teen says she fled from her family, who had been vacationing in Kuwait. She was able to board a flight to Thailand, intending to seek asylum in Australia.

But Thai authorities intercepted Alqunun when she arrived in Bangkok, where Alqunun says they took her passport. Thai officials, in apparent cooperation with Saudi Arabia, planned to put her on a flight and deport her back to her family in Kuwait.

Alqunun instead barricaded herself in her airport hotel room on Sunday, refusing to leave unless she could meet with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to make her case for asylum.

She launched a furious campaign on social media, amplified by activists and human-rights organizations.

Her calls were eventually answered: UNHCR officials met with Alqunun on Monday, and Thai authorities have, for now, halted deportation proceedings against her.

“The Thai authorities have granted UNHCR access to Saudi national, Rahaf Mohammed Al-qunun, at Bangkok airport to assess her need for international refugee protection,” UNHCR said in a statement. “UNHCR has been following developments closely and immediately sought access from the Thai authorities to meet with Ms. Mohammed Al-qunun, 18, to assess her need for international protection.”

Alqunun remains in Thailand as human-rights officials evaluate her claims, which could take up to 10 days, Thai officials told the New York Times. (UNHCR hasn’t given any details about the discussions, citing confidentiality reasons.)

“Today really was a good day for the cause of human rights around the world, with Rahaf’s tremendous courage and resilience being met with a global surge of sympathy for her,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times. “It all came together to persuade Thailand to do the right thing.”

Rahaf Mohammad says her family will torture her if she returns to them

Alqunun is live-tweeting her saga as it unfolds, posting desperate pleas for protection and documenting her resistance.

Alqunun has said that she slipped away from her family in Kuwait because she faced oppression, and possibly torture at home. “I don’t have rights in Saudi Arabia, and my family treated me so bad,” Alqunun told the BBC.

She told the New York Times that her life in Saudi Arabia was like a “prison,” where she faced verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her family:

In the interview, Ms. Alqunun described a life of unrelenting abuse at the hands of her family, who live in the city of Hail, in northern Saudi Arabia. She said she was once locked in a room for six months because she had cut her hair in a way that her family did not approve of. And she said her family used to beat her, mostly her brother.

Alqunun said she’d been plotting her escape since she was 16, but couldn’t travel on her own because Saudi Arabia requires women to obtain the consent of a male guardian (typically a father or other immediate male relative) to obtain passports and travel outside the country. Kuwait doesn’t have those same rules, so she seized the opportunity to slip away and seek safety.

Now Alqunun is fearful that she will face torture or death if she’s returned to her family because she’s disgraced them and has denounced Islam — a crime in Saudi Arabia for which she could be prosecuted. She even posted a screen shot of a death threat, which she claims is from a cousin. (The Twitter account she references has since been deleted.)

The arrival of UNHCR officials secured Alqunun a temporary reprieve, but her fate is far from secure. In a recent update, she posted on Twitter that her father had just arrived in Thailand, but said “at least I feel save [sic] under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities. And I finally got my passport back.”

Thai officials had originally claimed that they stopped Alqunun because she didn’t have a hotel reservation or a return ticket.

Thailand, which is ruled by a military dictatorship, has come under pressure for its willingness to work with authoritarian governments. In particular, the government has faced international condemnation for detaining or deporting ethnic Uighurs — a Muslim minority group persecuted by the Chinese government — back to China under pressure from Beijing.

The Saudi embassy has claimed that Alqunun will be deported back to the State of Kuwait where her family live” because she violated Thai laws. (Alqunun denied that she lived in Kuwait, and posted a picture of her student ID from Ha’il, a city in Saudi Arabia.) Alqunun’s father or other members of her family doesn’t appear to have spoken to the international press, or publicly addressed the allegations.

The Thai government’s immigration chief has now said Alqunun won’t now be sent back, and that she’s under the care of UNHCR. “There are no conditions,” Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, Thailand’s immigration chief, said. “There’s no detention or control over her.”

Alqunun’s story gained worldwide focus as Saudi Arabia faces continuing scrutiny for the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post who was critical of the kingdom, was murdered in a Saudi consulate in Turkey — a hit that was likely ordered by the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).

Khashoggi’s death helped destroy the image of MBS as some modernist reformer — he granted women permission to drive cars — and put focus on his consolidation of power and his crackdown on free speech. Dozens of journalists and activists are languishing in jails, and while the kingdom was never known as a bastion of free speech, the government has become even more repressive under MBS.

The UNHCR is still evaluating Alqunun’s claims, but her plight is again putting the spotlight on the troublesome human-rights situation in Saudia Arabia. And, once again, the whole world is watching.