A weekend is not a good time to seek help from the UN, should have been known to #RahafAlQanun
- updated 12. January 2018
vf - 07. January 2019 - The hashtag #SaveRahaf triggered a twitter-storm and subsequently made world headlines
Luckily and thanks to international support the adventure will end well for Ms. Rahaf. However, a second look at the whole story is warranted to see the roles of the different players and their actions more clearly - in order to grasp the full picture of the case, which then might make it also easier for others to escape and to avoid the numerous traps set up by governments and agencies in a globalizing world..
Ms. Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq Alqunun (she and UNHCR write her family name as al-Qunun), an 18 year-old teenager from the town of Hail in northwestern Saudi Arabia, had at first traveled with her family to Kuwait on a holiday trip and therefore had her passport with her.
She obviously also had money, since in Kuwait she escaped from her family and managed to board a plane to Thailand since she held a tourit visa for Australia.
She was relieved when the plane with her on board took off and left the Saudi peninsula in a flight that would first take her to Thailand in a stop-over and then onto Australia into freedom.
But upon arrival last Saturday, the 5th of January 2018, at Bangkok airport she was stopped by immigration police officers, who obviously had been alerted by her family. Her escape had been noticed and they managed to forestall the onward flight.
An official from the Saudi Embassy was quickly at hand and together they seized her passport during what she described a situation where they tricked her to present her passport and her visa document for Australia to them and then snatched the documents from her.
Thereafter the Thai officials not only denied her entry into Thailand, but also withheld her passport and thereby stopped her from taking the plane to Australia.
Ms. Rahaf's original plan had been to travel to Australia on a tourist visa and then seek asylum there. But in the evolving mayhem then suddenly also the record for her granted Australian tourist-visa disappeared mysteriously from the official internet-site of the Australian Government.
The Daily Mail reported Ms al-Qunun had already been granted resettlement in Australia — a claim The Australian said had been denied by government sources.
“I survived from death,” she said in an interview earlier on Friday, reflecting that since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Instabul she has feared for her own life. “I’m scared to be killed just like him.”
Fact: Ms. R.M. M. Al-Qunun had been illegally detained in flight transit at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on 5th January 2018 while en route from Kuwait to Australia, though she held a valid passport and had the required tourist visa documents for Australia. Thai officials colluded illegally with the family and the embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Having been alerted by Ms. Rahaf about the situation, friends then tried to alert the media and the the UN refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Likewise Ms. Rahaf was tweeting her desire to meet with UNHCR officials throughout, but that didn’t happen – it was weekend. She then stayed overnight in an airport hotel.
Thailand’s high-profile Immigration Bureau chief, Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, told the BBC the next day on Sunday, the 6th January 2018, that ‘Alqunun’ was escaping an arranged marriage and did not have a visa to enter Thailand, which allegedly would be a violation of the kingdom’s laws.
A subsequent tweet suggested the Thai government was prepared to cooperate with the Saudis: “The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Thailand coordinated us to send her back because she came here without a guardian. If we allow her to enter, she will be unsafe during her stay,” he tweeted at about 1pm local time.
The wires went hot.
Friends, media, human rights organizations and finally UNHCR became aware of the precarious situation the Saudi teen was in.
Meanwhile her brother and father tried to catch up and were travelling en-route to Thailand with the intention to drag Ms. Rahaf back to Saudi Arabia.
Ms. Rahaf stated many times that she had renounced Islam and that she feared she may be killed, if forced to return to her family.
Confirmed by her friends, she also stated that she had suffered abuse at the hands of family members. At one time they locked her for six months in her room, just because she had cut her hair. Ms. Rahaf was firm when she said that she had "escaped Kuwait" and her life would be in danger if Thailand deported her back to Saudi Arabia.
But deportation back to Saudi Arabia is exactly what the Thai officials in cohorts with her family had in mind.
Thailand, which is still not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, has a mixed history of handling asylum seekers. The country, however, has signed on to international human rights treaties that bar it from deporting people to places where they are at serious risk of harm. That fact then had to be made first clear to the Thai officials.
Ms. Rahaf's father, Mr. Mohammed Mutlaq al-Qunun, and her brother denied any allegations of abuse, but were eager to get to her, to get hold of her and to get her back to Saudi Arabia.
Thailand has “rapidly lost its reputation for being a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers,” Andrea Giorgetta, Asia director for the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), told TIME. Instead, the Kingdom has become known for its susceptibility to pressure from global powers to return high-profile refugees, bowing either to economic imperatives or promises “to reciprocate the favor and…send back Thai political exiles,” Giorgetta says.
Some who sought a safe haven on Thai soil have suffered refoulement — forcible return to places where they may face persecution — a violation of customary and international law.
The head of Thailand’s immigration bureau, Surachate Hakparn, confirmed that she refused to meet family members and that a flight for her return was booked. Still she didn't have her passport back and her deportation was all set.
At that point the original idea that she might be going to Australia was switched to go to Canada, because Canada was prepared to act much quicker and then really made the final rescue happen.
Aware of the now even more critical situation, the next day, Monday the 07th, began with Ms. Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq Alqunun barricading herself inside her Bangkok airport hotel room - after she was informed that her father had arrived and to avoid deportation.
From there she then launched a Twitter campaign that drew global attention to her case.
“I’m the girl who ran away to Thailand. I’m now in real danger because the Saudi Embassy is trying to force me to return,” said an English translation of one of her first postings over Twitter. The Twitter hashtag #SaveRahaf ensued, and a photo of her behind a door barricaded with a mattress, table and chair against the bolted door was seen around the world.
Ms. Rahaf had previously said on her personal Twitter account from where she first had tried to alert UNHCR that she wished to seek refuge in Australia.
But Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who had been made aware earlier, told reporters later on Wednesday his position and explained his bold stand that ‘Alqunun’ would not get any “special treatment” and was no different from any other similar case. That was followed then by even more controversial comments by Dutton, who also claimed Ms al-Qunan seemed perfectly fine in Thailand. “Nobody wants to see a young girl in distress and she has obviously now found a safe haven in Thailand,” Mr Dutton told reporters in Brisbane. He obviously had understood nothing. For this faux-pas he would get later slammed by Australian media - and rightly so said many human rights defenders.
The unresponsive stand of the Australians, the mysterious disappearance of her tourism visa from the Australian system, coupled with the immanent arrival of her father and brother in Bangkok, heightened the urgency to find a safe haven for her.
Thailand served as a popular escape route for defecting North Koreans, who are generally sent to South Korea. However, in 2015, authorities deported about 100 Uighur Muslims back to China, sparking a backlash from human rights groups and the United States.
Though Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, the government sometimes allows the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) - the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - to take responsibility for "Persons of Concern," aimed at resettling them in third countries.
A reporter from Australian Broadcasting (ABC), Sophie McNeill had the courage to stay close to the case of Ms. Rahaf and also helped with communication.
“Giuseppe De Vincentiis @UNHCRThailand country rep just told us #Thailand has assured him Rahaf would NOT be deported. But he directly contradicted what his officials promised me earlier. Now he is saying she will be in Thai police custody.”
But in a statement released thereafter by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it was confirmed that Thai authorities had granted the agency access to Ms. Rahaf.
Separately, the Immigration chief seemed to offer indications that the Thai government’s position in this case was quickly softening due to international pressure.
Barely an hour later, Lt. Gen. Surachate followed up with a cryptic tweet that appeared to indicate a 360-degree turn from where it started in the morning:
"We stand for the Humanity….
— Surachate Hakparn (@hakparn) January 7, 2019"
And with a slimy statement to a newspaper he said: “Since Thailand is the Land of Smiles, of course we won’t send someone to their death,” he was quoted by Khaosod English.
Reportedly Donica Pottie, Canada’s ambassador to Thailand, got early involved in the case and managed to push the Thai government to allow UNHCR to gain access to Alqunun, which is not something that usually happens in such cases in Thailand. The German Ambassador to Thailand supported her in Rahaf's case and also helped to find a quick solution.
“Thailand is concerned about their diplomatic relations, their political relations, their economic relations, and their military relations with certain countries,” says Emily Arnold-Fernández, executive director of Asylum Access. “Without an international outcry, there is no kind of competing pressure to encourage Thailand to do the right thing.”
UN Refugee Agency officials then finally met with the 18-year-old asylum seeker and did their short protection needs assessment interview.
Journalist Sophie McNeill, who throughout stayed close to the case of what had by now become a VIP refugee, tweeted:
UN has arrived. They are interviewing Rahaf. They gave their word that she would remain in their custody & that she is now safe. This is what they promised @UNHCRThailand @Reaproy @melissarfleming
— Sophie McNeill (@Sophiemcneill) January 7, 2019
Thereafter Thailand provided temporary refuge, facilitated that the refugee status determination (RSD) could be carried out quickly by UNHCR, and the bureaucratic part was completed.
This time UNHCR did their duty in just one day, actually in a couple of hours, and not like with the many cases e.g. in African countries, where refugees in the sprawling camps get their RSD interview often only after more than five years of endless waiting.
Rahaf was happy, but only felt safer after she got her passport back and realized that she was in fact placed under UNHCR protection, when the Thai officials suddenly put fake smiles on their faces and backed off.
By that time Thai immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn only told reporters that the Saudi teen had refused to meet her father and brother, who had flown to Bangkok, adding that they were returning home "disappointed."
Other Saudi women were and are not so lucky
This case once again has shone a spotlight on the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Many Saudi women fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and were returned home.
The case is the latest in a series highlighting what human rights activists say is the widespread subservient treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. Strict Saudi social rules typically require women to have permission from a male "guardian" to travel. “There are a lot of women in Saudi Arabia like us,” who still languish under the country’s repressive male guardianship system, other Saudi women confirm. Most have not gotten the benefit of the world’s attention. “It was good news for Rahaf that the world listened.” Several women had been forced to return home in recent years, they say, adding that many similar cases had gone unreported.
Many girls have escaped. The ones that went directly to western countries have made it safe. But the ones that went to Asian countries were often forced to return or were kidnapped, like #SaveDinaAli last year.
WHAT HAPPENED TO DINA ALI LASLOOM?, several voices shouted over Twitter.
She too had tweeted and recorded videos from a Manila airport fleeing her Saudi family and a forced marriage. We haven’t heard anything about Dina since they kidnapped her back to KSA. Almost 2 years ago. Is she still alive? Dead? Getting tortured? Jailed? No one knows.
Many, many other cases can be found on twitter: #SaveBasma #LoujainAlHathloul #EssamAlZamel #AzizaYousef #SaveAshwaqAndAreej #SaveAmna , who is reportedly in danger actualy, #انقذو_مروه #SaveLatifa Sheikha Latifa!! #انقذوا_غاليه
And critics stated on the very same twitter account where help was summoned for Rahaf together with a picture of a Syrian child frozen to death:
"When a Saudi teenager ran from her home all "humanitarian" organisations and activists went crazy to "save" her for the sake of scoring points against SA. Thousands of Syrian refugees are freezing to death but these same organisations & activists did nothing to help."
Ms. Rahaf had to close her own twitter account due to the many hate and diffamatiion messages as well as serious threats she received.
But others tweeted: “Rahaf al-Qunun, mark my words, is going to start a revolution in Saudi Arabia. Go on social media now & watch accounts of so many young Saudis saying,“Rahaf, you’ve shown us, that we can do this! Rahaf, you have shown us,that we deserve to be free.”
Meanwhile Australia focused solely on another refugee from Bahrain, whom they still didn't manage to free.
On Thursday, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne then finally visited senior Thai officials in Bangkok, but only to raise concerns about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain's national soccer team, detained in Thailand.
Al-Araibi was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 but was arrested on an Interpol notice in November while vacationing in Thailand. [UPDATE: Due to nternational pressure he was released by Thailand and flew back to Australia on 11. February 2019]
Level-headed, goodhearted and straight thinking Australian cartoonists, who could not imagine that their governance could take such a reluctant and cruel stand towards Ms. Rahaf, had already provided for government-praising cartoons - egging on the Saudis - but these drawn thoughts became quickly superfluous in a situation of Australian governmental neglect and the reluctance of clueless "Kangaroo-politicians. When Captain Cook first landed on Australia, he asked the aboriginal people of the Endeavor River what they named a peculiar animal. They must have not quite understood the question, since they replied "I don't know" in their native language, which sounds like "kangaroo'. Cook mistakenly thought that it was the name of the animal. After "kangaroo-court" now "kangaroo-politicians" are found out.
It is always astonishing that Australians of British decent - especially those whose forefathers and foremothers were shipped to Ocenania as Prisoners of her Majesty (PoMs) - and who all were some kind of refugees or migrants - developed an outright hate for newcomers. "Considering" is outragious and arrogant diplo-lingo, because HELPING is like pregnancy - either you are or you are not. Australia's governance has to re-learn that fact.
By Thursday the 10th, Ms. Rahaf Mohammed Al- Qunun was still in Thailand.
UPDATE (12. January 2019):
The Saudi teenager seeking asylum has flown out of Thailand, heading for Canada via South Korea.
While Ms. Rahaf originally said she wanted to reach Australia, it became clear in the past week that Canada presented to her the quickest path to freedom.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that Ottawa had granted asylum to Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun.
Trudeau announced during a press conference in Regina that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees asked Canada to take Alqunun as a refugee, and Canada agreed.
Thailand, which initially had threatened to deport her back to Saudi Arabia, said she was seen off by Canada's ambassador, Donica Pottie.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, who barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room last weekend, alleging she had been abused by her Saudi family, boarded a Korean Air flight on Friday the 11th, bound ultimately for Toronto. She was seen off by Canada's ambassador, UNHCR staff and supporters.
"When the United Nations made a request of us that we grant Miss Alqunun's asylum, we accepted," said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while some media suddenly reported that Australia too said it was considering sanctuary.
Canada was already far offside with Riyadh over Ottawa's demand for the "immediate release" of jailed rights campaigners, including Samar Badawi, the sister of the jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawim whose family lives in Quebec.
Canada's acceptance of Ms. Rahaf is likely to further upset its relations with the Saudi rulers.
In August, Riyadh expelled Canada's ambassador and withdrew its own envoy from Canada after Canada's Foreign Ministry tweeted support for women's rights activists arrested in the Kingdom.
The Associated Press reported last October that Saudi Arabia was paying lobbyists, lawyers and public relations experts nearly $6 million (€5.2 million) a year following the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, later admitted as murder.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi welcomed Canada’s decision, given the hardening of attitudes in some countries towards the plight of refugees.
“Ms. al-Qunun’s plight has captured the world’s attention over the past few days, providing a glimpse into the precarious situation of millions of refugees worldwide,” he said in a statement. “Refugee protection today is often under threat and cannot always be assured, but in this instance international refugee law and overriding values of humanity have prevailed.”
The UN Refugee agency with an official statement welcomed the arrival in Canada of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun and the decision of the Canadian Government to provide international protection and a long-term solution for her there as a resettled refugee.
Father and brother were to return to Saudi Arabia early Saturday, the 12th, and a week after the free movement of Ms. Rahaf was blocked illegally in Thailand.
The quick actions over the past week of the Government of Canada in offering emergency resettlement to Ms. al-Qunun and arranging her travel were key to the successful resolution of this case.
With political sentiment and public attitudes towards refugees having hardened in some countries in recent years, resettlement to so-called third country of asylum – the mechanism by which Ms. al-Qunun has been accepted by Canada – is available only to a fraction of the world’s 25.4 million refugees, typically those at greatest risk, such as women at risk. Ms. al-Qunun’s case was dealt with on a fast-track ‘emergency’ basis in light of the urgency of her situation.
“That is something that we are pleased to do because Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world,” Trudeau said.
The Trudeau government’s decision is sure to further strain Canada’s relations with Saudi Arabia. In August, Saudi Crown Prime Mohammed bin Salman expelled Canada’s ambassador and withdrew his own envoy after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland used Twitter to call for the release of women’s rights activists who had been arrested in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and recalled their students from universities in Canada.
Trudeau appeared unfazed by the possibility of any ill effects on Canada’s relations with the Saudi Arabia.
“Canada has been unequivocal,” he said. “We will always stand up for human rights and women’s rights around the world. This is part of a long tradition of Canada engaging constructively and positively in the world and working with our partners, allies and with the United Nations. And when the United Nations made a request of us that we grant Ms. Alqunun asylum, we accepted.”
She arrived in Pearson International Airport on a Korean Air flight from Seoul on Saturday.
When Ms. Rahaf as now recognized refugee arrived after the week-long ordeal finally in Canada, she appeared relieved but understandily very exhausted and tired. She was briefly presented to the media, smiling under a blue UNICEF cap and kept warm in a new CANADA jumper. She received flowers from a Canadian, Mr Tarek Fatah, who together with his daughter Natasha played an important role in this global event, and then she was quickly whisked away into her new life. But not without sending over a new Twitter account:
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
Case closed for the news-hounds of the media. (update 15.02.2019)
Bu not yet for the PR news of the MSM, since a brief media conference was staged on Tuesday 15th January in Toronto, Canada, where Ms. Rahaf Mohammed thanked Canadians for welcoming her, detailed again her reasons to flee from her family and Saudi Arabia (see her letter). She also announced that she will no longer use her last name al-Qunun, as she starts her new life in Canada and because her family had renounced her.
Quickly also in Canada the state-bureaucrcy got hold of her and she will need some time to complete the resettlement procedures, adapt and understand that also Canada is not really a land of the free anymore - though it is still vast enough and has laws in place that can give her more peace of mind than the situation in her birthplace.
She is not being left alone and though Ms. Rhaf Mohammed said she is grateful to be in a safe country, she still is and has to be concerned about her safety. The arms of the villans and the assassins from rogue states can reach far, as we saw in the case of Saudi dissident and journalist Khashoggi.
And for the humanitarians the world over the struggle for persecuted people has to continue, since never before in human history so many people are threatened by oppressive regimes and their henchmen as well as by war, destroyed environment, bombed infrastructure and very little means for survival.