By The Nation
THAILAND LANDED in hot water yesterday after government officials initially indicated they planned to deport a Saudi teenager who was stopped in Bangkok en route to Australia to seek asylum, drawing objections from the international community and rights advocates.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan insisted yesterday morning that 18-year-old Rahaf Mohanned al-Qunun had to be sent back to her family despite her claims that they had abused her and would kill her when she returned.
Immigration chief Surachate Hakparn initially echoed the sentiment, but said at a press conference hours later that al-Qunun would not be forcibly deported after all.
Prawit had seen no other option. “The case concerns only Saudi Arabia and Thailand, no third country,” he said. “We cannot send her to the third country as requested because we have no power to do that.”
Surachate, hours later: “If deporting her would result in her death, we definitely wouldn’t want to do that.”
Al-Qunun was detained on Saturday during transit at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Surachate claiming she had no visa to enter Thailand. Al-Qunan told rights groups and reporters that a representative of the Saudi embassy in Bangkok had intercepted her at the airport and seized her passport.
The teenager said she wanted to avoid a forced marriage arranged by her family, whom she accused of physical and psychological abuse. She departed from Kuwait, bound for Australia, while the family were travelling.
She said she was “100 per cent sure” her family would kill her if she was sent back.
Thai-Saudi relations have been strained ever since a major ruction over a Thai migrant worker’s theft of a diamond from the Saudi royal palace and the assassinations of Saudi diplomats in Bangkok in 1989-1990. Several attempts have since been made to normalise relations, none successful.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Busadee Santipitaks said the ministry had no advance notice of plans to turn back al-Qunun. “The case is under the jurisdiction of the Immigration Bureau under the 1979 Immigration Act,” she said. “This action was taken according to the law and related regulations.”
Having barricaded herself in a hotel room at the airport, al-Qunun has been keeping followers updated about her situation via tweets, videos and interviews with foreign media outlets. The Twitter account, which appears to be managed by more than one person, has issued appeals to foreign diplomats for help, as well as to US President Donald Trump.
In one video posted last night from her hotel room, she refused to leave her room until she could meet with representatives of the UN High Commission for Refugees. Photos tweeted showed a mattress jammed up against the room’s main door, blocking entrance.
UNHCR spokesperson Caroline Gluck told The Nation that access had been granted to the agency to assess al-Qunun’s need for its protection. After the two hour meeting, the teenager left the airport hotel under the care of UN. She was allowed to stay in Thailand for five days while the UN was considering her asylum request, said immigration chief Surachate.
The agency maintains that refugees and asylum seekers – whether confirmed to be in need of its protection or claiming to need it – cannot legally be returned to their countries of origin, the UNHRC said in a statement, citing the principle of “non-refoulement”.
The principle prevents states from expelling or returning persons to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened. It is enshrined in treaty obligations to which Thailand is a signatory.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also urged Thai authorities to block the deportation and allow al-Qunun to make her case through the Bangkok office of the UNHCR and to respect its decision.
“Thai authorities should … either allow her to continue on to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand and seek protection as a refugee,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Thai authorities are bound by the general prohibition not to transfer persons to any place where they would face a real risk of serious human rights abuses.”
Added Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Middle East director of campaigns: “Al-Qunun is entitled to fair and effective safeguards against any deportation and to international protection.”
Angkhana Neelapaijit, a National Human Rights Commissioner, said al-Qunun must be allowed to meet with UNHCR officials to determine if she warrants asylum status.
“We must talk to her foreign ministry, and the Immigration Bureau must explain its actions because she’s a woman and a minor,” Angkhana said.