Asylum hope for Saudi teenager who fled death

Fear: A journalist who helped al-Qunun during her ordeal said the young woman was “terrified”.

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family at the weekend is in hiding in Thailand pleading for asylum. She fears that her father and brother may kill her for renouncing Islam.

An 18-year-old woman sits in a hotel room at a Bangkok airport. A desk and mattress are pushed against the door, forming a barricade. She films herself pleading for help from “any country that would protect me”.

Her name is Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun. She fled Saudi Arabia after renouncing Islam, fearing that her family might kill her. Under the kingdom’s strict laws, apostasy is punishable by death.

But after reaching Thailand on her way to seek asylum in Australia, the teenager was detained by Saudi officials who confiscated her passport. She was taken to a hotel, where she locked herself in to stop immigration officials deporting her on a flight back to Kuwait on Monday morning.

Her videos and the #SaveRahaf hashtag rapidly spread across social media, making headlines around the world. Thai officials soon relented under the pressure.

Al-Qunun is now under United Nations (UN) protection and her passport has been returned, but her future remains uncertain. Her father arrived in Bangkok yesterday, but he has not yet been allowed to see his daughter.

“Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives [...] if returned against their will,” warned Michael Page of Human Rights Watch.

The case highlights the ongoing plight of women in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has introduced a raft of reforms for women, including letting them drive for the first time. And as of Monday, Saudi women must be notified by text when their husbands divorce them.

But the Kingdom’s oppressive guardianship laws remain firmly in place. They require women to get permission from a male relative to travel abroad, work or marry. Women who disobey their families face imprisonment.

Al-Qunun’s case comes months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi highlighted Saudi Arabia’s vicious human rights record and sent relations with the West plummeting.

Around the world, the 18-year-old’s battle is far from unique. Every day, 44,400 people are forced to flee from persecution or conflict. Over half of the world’s 25.4 million refugees are under 18.

Fight back

Saudi Arabia has a contradictory stance on women’s rights, introducing reforms with one hand and imposing brutality with the other. Is the kingdom really making progress, or is it just a show for outsiders? Is the West powerless to stop Saudi Arabia’s rights abuses?

Most will agree that it’s wrong to keep women trapped in Saudi Arabia. Is it just as wrong for another country to refuse them entry? Globally, more people have been forced to leave their homes than ever before. Is social media the best way to stop asylum seekers being deported? What about the cases that don’t get any attention?

You Decide

  1. Should the UK accept more or fewer refugees?
  2. Would a world without borders be a better or worse place?

Activities

  1. Find out the three countries that accept the most refugees, and the three countries where most refugees come from.
  2. Create a presentation about what daily life is like for women in Saudi Arabia. Research the laws and restrictions they are subject too, as well as wider points about the country’s culture.

Some People Say...

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Audre Lorde

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Eighteen-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun was detained at an airport in Bangkok on her way from Kuwait (where her Saudi family was on a trip) to seek asylum in Australia. There, Saudi officials confiscated her passport. She said she feared her family would kill her because she has renounced Islam. Authorities intended to deport her back to Kuwait, but she tweeted about her situation. Her tweets caused a social media outcry. She is now allowed to remain in Thailand while her asylum case is considered.
What do we not know?
The outcome of al-Qunun’s case and what would happen if she was returned to Saudi Arabia. In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia after fleeing to the Philippines. She was reportedly detained, and her current whereabouts are unknown.

Word Watch

Kingdom
Saudi Arabia, which follows one of the strictest forms of Sunni Islam, is ruled by the Saud royal family. King Salman is old and elderly. His son, MBS, serves as the de facto ruler, although his standing has been damaged by international condemnation since Khashoggi’s killing.
Apostasy
When you leave or abandon a religion. This is a crime in Saudi Arabia.
Seek asylum
Anyone who faces persecution or violence in their country has the right to leave and claim asylum from another.
Kuwait
An Arab state with very close relations to Saudi Arabia. Al-Qunun’s family was visiting Kuwait when she fled.
United Nations
An international organisation focused on keeping peace. Its refugee agency, the UNHCR, aims to assist refugees around the world.
Text
Previously, men could get a divorce without their wives’ knowledge.
Jamal Khashoggi
Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2018. It is widely agreed that he was assassinated by Saudi agents because of his opposition to the country’s regime.
44,400
According to the UNHCR.