U.N. refugee agency interviews Saudi teen asylum seeker in Thailand

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BANGKOK (Reuters) – The U.N. refugee agency on Tuesday said it was investigating the case of an 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her and barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to avoid being sent back.

Lawmakers and activists in Australia and Britain urged their governments to grant asylum to Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who was finally allowed by Thailand to enter the country late on Monday, after nearly 48 hours stranded at Bangkok airport under threat of being expelled.

She is staying in a Bangkok hotel with her application for refugee status being processed by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) before she can seek asylum in a third country.

UNHCR staff were interviewing her on Tuesday after meeting her the day before.

“It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” UNHCR’s Thailand representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis said in a statement.

“We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back (Qunun) against her will and are extending protection to her,” he said.

The case has drawn new global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

It comes at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of a journalist at its consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

Qunun’s plight unfolded on social media, drawing support from around the world, which convinced Thai authorities to back down from sending her back to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Thailand denied reports that Riyadh had requested the extradition of the women.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not asked for her extradition. The embassy considers this issue a family matter,” the embassy said in a post on Twitter.

Thai Immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said on Monday that the embassy had alerted Thai authorities to the case, and said that the woman had run away from her parents and they feared for her safety.

In Australia, a senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, called on her government, through social media, to issue Qunun an emergency travel document so she could fly to Australia to seek asylum.

The Australian government said it was monitoring the case closely highlighting that “the claims made by Ms Al-Qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning”, said a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

A woman in Britain had launched an online petition calling on Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to grant Qunan asylum and issue her an emergency travel document.

Within hours of launching the petition it had secured thousands of signatures.