RIYADH: Saudi Arabia did not request the extradition of one of its citizens seeking asylum in Thailand, Thai authorities have said.
Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun made a plea for asylum after landing at Bangkok airport, before later being placed “under the care” of the United Nations refugee agency, news agency AFP quoted a Thai official saying late Monday.
This was later confirmed by Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Thailand which also denied, in a tweet, that Riyadh had requested Al-Qunun’s extradition.
Al-Qunun told AFP she ran away from her family while travelling in Kuwait because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
The 18-year-old said she had planned to seek asylum in Australia and feared she would be killed if repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her during transit on Sunday.
Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn had said Sunday that Qunun was denied entry because of her lack of documents, which is a statement that refuted unverified claims that she was denied entry based on a Saudi/Kuwaiti official request.
However, Hakparn made an abrupt about-face the next day, following a global media frenzy as the young woman pleaded on Twitter for different countries to help her.
After announcing that Thailand “will not force her” to leave, Surachate told reporters late Monday that Qunun would be “allowed to stay” after a meeting with officials from the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
“She is under the care of the UNHCR now but we also sent Thai security to help take care (of her),” Surachate told reporters at Suvarnabhumi airport.
He said Qunun had told UNHCR officials she “wants to stay in Thailand for a while while seeking asylum to a third country.”
The agency “will take five days to consider her status” and another five days to arrange for travel, Surachate said, adding that he would meet with Saudi diplomats on Tuesday to explain Thailand's decision.
Following the announcement, a relieved Qunun tweeted that she felt safe “under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities,” adding that her passport had been returned to her after being taken away on Sunday.
She had originally alleged that Saudi and Kuwaiti officials had taken her passport from her when she landed - a claim backed by Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
However, Abdulilah Al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, told Saudi-owned TV channel Rotana Khalijia that the woman’s father - a senior regional government official - had contacted the diplomatic mission for “help” bringing her back.
But he denied that her passport had been seized nor that embassy officials were present inside the airport.
A Twitter statement from the Saudi embassy in Bangkok said Qunun was stopped by Thai authorities for “violating the (Thai) law.”
Given the family-feud nature of the dispute, it is unlikely that the Saudi government will make any further comments or intervene in the matter, experts in Riyadh predict.
UNHCR’s spokesman in Geneva Babar Baloch confirmed Qunun had “left the airport to a safe place in the city” and said agency officials would interview her once she had had some rest.
If sent back, Qunun told AFP she would likely be imprisoned and was “sure 100 percent” her family would kill her.
Australian embassy representatives in Bangkok have reached out to Thai authorities and the UNHCR to “seek assurances” that she will be able to access the “refugee status determination process.”