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UN agency urges Australia to consider asylum request after Saudi teen granted refugee status

Jan 09. 2019
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By THE NATION

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THE UNITED Nations refugee agency has asked Australia to consider resettlement of the Saudi teenager who was detained at Suvarnabhumi Airport last week after Thai immigration staff said her travelling documents were insufficient.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, who claimed to have run away from her family after enduring physical and psychological abuse, barricaded herself in an airport hotel even as Thai authorities prepared to deport her back to her family at the request of Riyadh.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok intervened in the case after al-Qunun publicised her distress via social media, while human rights defenders and media weighed in on the case to demand protection for her.

The Thai authorities later changed their stance and allowed UNHCR representatives access to the teenager. She was taken under their care by the UN agency on Monday.

“The UNHCR has referred al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” Australia’s Department of Home Affairs confirmed in a statement.

The department said it will “consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals”.

Australian officials have strongly hinted that al-Qunun’s request will be accepted, according to an AFP report. “If she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa,” Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt had said before the UN assessment was made public.

The 18-year-old refused to meet with her father who is in Thailand, according to Immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn. 

The father, who flew in yesterday and is set to take the evening flight back to Riyadh, was scheduled to meet UNHCR officials to give his side of the story. 

The young woman is accusing her family of physical and psychological abuse. It is still unclear why the woman was detained in Bangkok in the first place. 

Earlier reports claimed al-Qunun’s father had asked Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Bangkok to help detain her but the embassy said later that Saudi Arabia had never demanded her deportation since the conflict is a family matter. 

Surachate yesterday blamed the airline for allowing al-Qunun to board its flight to Bangkok even though she had insufficient travel documents. He said the Thai Immigration Police Bureau would issue a warning to Kuwait Airways. He said he planned to have immigration laws that have been used for more than 40 years reviewed. The laws should increase the penalty for airlines whose staff do not check the required documents, including a return ticket for a passenger, he said. 

Meanwhile, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne will arrive in Thailand today on a bilateral visit and also make the case for the safe return to Australia of footballer Hakeem Alaraibi, who has been detained in Thailand and faces an extradition court trial. 

Alaraibi, who is wanted in Bahrain in connection with a political protest, was granted permanent residency by the Australian government in recognition of his status as a refugee, according to a statement. 

Payne will meet with her Thai counterpart, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. Her visit comes at an important time for Thailand as it takes up its position as Asean Chair for 2019.

The visit will serve as an opportunity to reiterate Australia’s support for Thailand’s return to democracy, following elections that are expected to take place this year, the statement said. 

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