Eighteen-year-old Rahaf Mohammad al-Qunun was both media savvy and lucky to avoid being forcibly sent back from Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport to Saudi Arabia to meet possible death.
The use of social media, in this case Twitter, became crucial in enabling the Saudi Arabian woman to call for help from her airport hotel room.
“@PravitR if you know anyone who can stop them from forcing me onto the flight please contact me asap” was a wake-up call tweeted at me from @Rahaf84427714 at 6:15am. It was Monday and happened to be a day off work, so I responded as what a human being ought to.
Within the next 24 hours or less, we saw Rahaf gain more than 45,000 followers and many supporters, including diplomats, the media and rights activists, to her cause.
Rahaf said she had denounced Islam and would meet certain death if sent back to Saudi Arabia. I suggested she reach out to the UNHCR on Twitter, and thank God, the Bangkok office of the UN Refugee Agency was efficient and managed to place her under its protection by that night, grant her refugee status by Wednesday and help put her on a plane to Canada on Friday night..
It seems a happy ending story but there was nothing certain about it.
Rahaf alleged that she was greeted by an agent of the Saudi Arabian embassy while landing Saturday in Bangkok to catch a connecting flight to Australia. Her passport was confiscated and she end up locking herself in Room 303 of Miracle Transit Hotel. Armed with nothing but a smartphone, Rahaf mobilized help and sympathy from her Twitter account.
The Thai authorities on Monday morning gave every indication she would be forced onto an 11:15am Kuwait Airlines flight back to Kuwait City where she had fled her family while traveling.
Many people did what they could, ringing the UNHCR, contacting Western embassies, and amplifying her SOS on social media and beyond.
By noon, upon learning that a close contact knew the hotel’s owning family, I asked her to reach out and see what was happening and request Rahaf be treated on a humanitarian grounds.
The source said the hotel, while sympathetic to what was happening, may not be able to prevent the Thai authorities from taking Rahaf away much longer. Time was of the essence.
On the phone, I alerted Phil Robertson, Bangkok-based deputy asia director for Human Rights Watch, that there may not be much time left. Even if Rahaf has managed to avoid being forced onto the flight.
By then the UNHCR had already dispatched a team to the hotel but wasn’t allowed to see Rahaf until later Monday.
Around that time on Twitter, some had begun to denounce the Thai military regime and threaten to boycott Thai tourism and #SaveRahaf has become one of the hottest hashtags on Twitter.
Elaine Pearson, Australia director for Human Rights Watch, tweeted to say, “Thailand’s reputation as a idyllic holiday destination is on the line. Thailand shouldn’t become equally famous for colluding with authoritarian regimes, detaining people at Bangkok airport & forcibly returning them to situations of torture/violence/jail. #SaveRahaf #SaveHakeem.”
A Bangkok-based expat Tom Touhy replied, “Fully agree. Thai tourism has already taken a big hit this year with the Phuket boat disaster that killed 47 Chinese citizens. Now it’s time for Thailand to show it cares about others especially a young woman trapped in a Bangkok in fear of her life if sent back to Saudi.”
I would need a lot more space to show all the other activities online and off from the multitudes of people who pressured the military regime and helped rescued Rahaf. An earlier defender was Germany’s new ambassador to Thailand, Georg Scmidt, who tweeted his concern about Rahaf and intervened Monday morning. Despite normally attracting no more than 10 retweets, the ambassador’s message from his official account @GermanAmbTHA was retweeted 1,416 times.
Other embassies working behind the scene included Canada, the Netherlands and the EU mission in Bangkok.
In the end, the fact that Saudi charge d’ affaires Abdullh al-Shuaibi later told the Thai immigration police on Wednesday that perhaps the Thai police should have confiscated Rahaf’s mobile phone instead, speaks volume about her lucky escape and the Twitter storm and forced both the Saudi and Thai authorities to back down.
Despite junta No. 2 leader Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan suggesting Monday that Rahaf would be sent back, the situation had changed by early afternoon and Thai immigration police chief Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn managed a belated face-saving effort by declaring that Thailand, as the Land of Smiles, would not “send someone to their death.”
This was just hours before immigration police prevented reporters and even a human rights commissioner from seeing Rahaf. Caretaker human rights commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit told this writer that immigration police claimed they has no jurisdiction over the matter and could do nothing to save Rahaf. This despite having been the ones to cordon off the hotel room.
I wish Rahaf well with her new life in Canada, where belief, or the lack thereof, is not a crime.
As she left Bangkok en route to Canada, she tweeted:
“I would like to thank you people for supporting me and saiving my life. Truly I have never dreamed of this love and support. You are the spark that would motivate me to be a better person.”
As of Friday afternoon, Rahaf enjoys more than 134,000 followers on Twitter. With her new found influence and fame, I hope she eventually plays a role for the rights for women in Saudi Arabia, the Arab world and beyond and helps save others, both men and women, as well.
Many are still in similar predicaments.
While Rahaf came and went, Hakeem Alaraibi, a Bahraini football player, remains in a Bangkok prison after being arrested at the same airport late last year on his way back to Australia from his honeymoon, despite holding valid refugee status. #SaveHakeem is a different and long story worthy of another column though.