Standoff at Suvarnabhumi as Saudi Woman Resists Deportation

Officers in front of the Immigration Bureau Police operation center on Monday afternoon at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok.
Officers in front of the Immigration Bureau Police operation center on Monday afternoon at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok.

SAMUT PRAKAN— A Saudi woman who says she fled her family to seek asylum in Australia is surrounded by police in an airport hotel room where she faces imminent deportation by Thai authorities.

Police have cordoned off the Miracle Transit Hotel and are not allowing anyone inside after Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, refused to leave her room this morning and board an 11:15am Kuwaiti Airlines flight to take her back to her family she fled while on vacation.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun Monday morning at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Photo: Sophiemcneill / Twitter
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun Monday morning at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Photo: Sophiemcneill / Twitter

Pruettipong Prayonsiri, commander of the Immigration Bureau’s airport immigration division, said this morning that police were working with Saudi Arabia’s embassy to send her back to her family.

“Wherever they came from, they have to go back there. If someone came from China, then they have to return to China. If they came from Japan, they have to come from Japan. They can’t go to a third country,” Maj. Gen. Pruettipong said.

Update: Saudi Woman Leaves Bangkok Airport Under UN Care

Alqunun says she was fleeing years of abuse at the hands of her family and faces death if she is deported. She began tweeting late Saturday after Thai authorities stopped her in transit from Kuwait. She possesses a visa for Australia, where she was planning to seek asylum.

“She’s not a refugee. She’s a child, and her guardians want her back,” Pruettipong said. “The embassy did all the work with us.”

A source close to the owners of the airport hotel, who asked not to be identified, said just before 2pm that the authorities were pressuring them to kick her out.

Just before 3pm, a court denied an injunction that would have allowed Alqunun to travel freely, according to a statement posted by lawyers representing the Saudi teen. Nadthasiri Bergman of Human Rights Lawyer Association said they would appeal.

The hashtag #SaveRahaf is trending on Thai social media. Thai Raksa Chart politician Chaturon Chaisang, whose passport was seized by the junta following the coup, tweeted in support of her right to fly to Australia. The Future Forward Party also issued a statement supporting Alqunun.

Deputy junta chairman Prawit Wongsuwan maintained that Alqunun would be sent back to her home country.

“This is a matter between Thailand and Saudi Arabia,” Gen. Prawit told reporters.

On Twitter, Alqunun wrote of being in “real danger” if forced to return to her family under pressure from Saudi authorities. She also posted a copy of her passport to provide evidence of her identity.

“I’m calling for all people inside the transit area in Bangkok to protest against deporting me to Kuwait. Please I need u all,” Alqunun tweeted Monday morning. “I’m shouting out for help of humanity.”

German Ambassador to Thailand Georg Schmidt tweeted Monday that he was concerned about her case.

For runaway Saudi women, fleeing can be a matter of life and death, and they are almost always doing so to escape male relatives.

Alqunun told Human Rights Watch she was fleeing abuse from her family, including beatings and death threats from her male relatives who forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair and renouncing Islam.

“I am giving my family 48 hours (to) either stop or I will publish everything that will incriminate them,” she wrote on Twitter.

The Associated Press reached Alqunun by telephone in her hotel room where she spoke briefly, saying that someone took her passport after telling her she could get a visa for Thailand. She said an hour later, several people came and told her they knew she had run away, that her family wants her and she should return to Saudi Arabia. She did not elaborate.

Alqunun told Human Rights Watch that she arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok Saturday evening from Kuwait, but that a diplomat from the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok seized her passport to prevent her traveling to Australia. Saudi and Thai officials then told her she would be returned to Kuwait on Monday, where her father and brother are awaiting her.

Saudi Arabia’s charge d’affaires in Bangkok Abdullah al-Shuaibi denied Saudi authorities were involved in any way.

He was quoted in Saudi press saying that Alqunun was stopped by Thai authorities because she did not appear to have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist. He said the Saudi Embassy has no authority to stop anyone at the airport and that this decision rests with Thai officials.

“She was stopped by airport authorities because she violated Thai laws,” he was quoted as saying in Sabq, a state-aligned Saudi news website.

“The embassy is only monitoring the situation,” al-Shuaibi said.

Alqunun’s plight mirrors that of other Saudi women who have tried to flee abusive or restrictive family conditions.

A Saudi activist familiar with other cases of females who’ve runaway said often the women are young, inexperienced and unprepared for the obstacles and risks involved in seeking asylum when they attempt to flee.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion, the activist said there have been instances where Saudi women runaways were stopped by authorities in Hong Kong or the Philippines en route to Australia or New Zealand. In some cases, Saudi authorities have been involved in forcing women to return to their families and in other cases local authorities suspect the women of seeking asylum and deport them.

The Thai authorities’ intervention in Alqunun’s case comes one month after it detained a Bahraini political refugee on vacation in Thailand. After public attention was drawn to the imminent deportation of Hakeem Ali Mohamed Ali AlAraibi, who was detained at his government’s request while returning to Australia, Thailand jailed him and set a hearing date. He remains in custody at the Bangkok Remand Prison.

Alqunun appears to have attempted to flee while on a family visit to Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia requires that a woman have the consent of a male relative — usually a father or husband — to obtain a passport, travel abroad or marry.

Saudi women runaways, however, have increasingly turned to social media to amplify their calls for help.

In 2017, Dina Lasloom triggered a firestorm online when she was stopped en-route to Australia where she planned to seek asylum. She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia and was not publicly heard from again, according to activists tracking her whereabouts.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Nadthasiri’s firm. 

Additional reporting Teeranai Charuvastra, Associated Press’ Grant Peck and Aya Batrawy