Saudi teen barricades herself in Thai hotel to stop being returned to family

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BANGKOK/DUBAI (Reuters) – An 18-year-old Saudi woman fleeing her family barricaded herself inside a Thai airport hotel on Monday, refusing to allow immigration officials to escort her on to a flight to Kuwait and saying she fears her family will kill her.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has been at Bangkok airport since Saturday when she was denied entry by Thai immigration officials, who deny her accusations that she was detained at the request of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry denied her allegations that its embassy had confiscated her passport, saying in a Tweet she was stopped at the airport for violating Thai immigration laws.

Qunun posted a video on Twitter on Monday of her barricading her hotel door with a table and a mattress.

Qunun told Reuters she fled Kuwait while her family was visiting the Gulf country and had planned to travel from Thailand to Australia to seek asylum. She said she was detained after leaving her plane in Bangkok and told she would be sent back to Kuwait.

“My brothers and family and the Saudi embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait,” Qunun said by text and voice message from the hotel on Sunday.

“They will kill me,” she said. “My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”

Asked why she was seeking refuge in Australia, she said: “Physical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months. They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education.

“They won’t let me drive or travel. I am oppressed. I love life and work and I am very ambitious but my family is preventing me from living.”

THAIS, SAUDIS DENY ALLEGATIONS

Her family could not immediately be reached for comment. In her initial social media pleas, Qunun said her family was powerful in Saudi society but she did not identify them.

Saudi culture and guardianship policy requires women to have permission from a male relative to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment. The deeply conservative Muslim country lifted a ban on women drivers last year.

Thai immigration authorities said Qunun was refused entry because she did not have the proper documents.

“We have contacted Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry in order to send her back to her country of origin,” Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters. “She will not be sent to a third country because we don’t have the authority to do so.”

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok said it was trying to meet Qunun.

“UNHCR consistently advocates that refugees and asylum seekers … cannot be returned to their countries of origin according to the principle of non-refoulement, which prevents states from expelling or returning persons to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened,” it said in a statement.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thailand should not send Qunun back to her family because she says she faces danger.

Qunun said she had obtained an Australian visa and booked a flight. She said she had planned to spend a few days in Thailand so she would not spark suspicion when she left Kuwait.

“When I landed at the airport, someone came and said he would process the (Thai) visa but he took my passport. He came back with what seemed to be airport security and said that my parents objected and said I must return to Saudi Arabia via Kuwait Airways,” she said.

She said she believed she was stopped after her family appealed to Kuwait Airways. A spokesman for Kuwait Airways said he had no information about the case.

Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said Qunun was denied entry because she did not have a paid return ticket or hotel reservation.

“She was over-exaggerating… She fled her family from Saudi Arabia and arrived in Thailand but she didn’t have necessary documents to enter. Thai immigration had to deny her entry,” he said, describing such action as standard procedure.