BANGKOK – Australia’s foreign minister Thursday declined to say how long it will take to consider a UN request to resettle a young Saudi teen who fled her family, as the 18-year-old’s plight sparked a topless protest in Sydney and debate among Saudis over their country’s restrictive “guardianship” laws.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s attempt to flee the ultra-conservative kingdom has become a cause celebrate for rights groups since the 18-year-old landed in Bangkok from Kuwait last weekend.
Thai authorities threatened to deport her but with the help of activists, diplomats and a hastily opened Twitter account Qunun launched an impassioned asylum campaign.
As global interest surged — and her Twitter followers snowballed into the tens of thousands — the Thais backed down from deportation, handing her into the care of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok, which urged Australia to offer resettlement.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne, on a scheduled visit to Bangkok to meet her Thai counterpart, told reporters Australia was “engaged in the steps of the assessment process of Miss Al-Qunun as required.”
She said there was “no possibility” that Qunun would return to Australia with her Thursday and would not speculate on a time frame if — as Canberra has heavily hinted this week — she is granted refuge status.
Qunun alleges abuse by her family, while rights groups also said she had renounced Islam, risking prosecution in conservative Saudi Arabia.
Her father, who denies mistreating her, will remain in Bangkok “until he knows which country she is going to”, Thailand’s immigration police chief told reporters Thursday.
The Saudi embassy in Bangkok has said it did not demand the teenager’s deportation and the case was a family affair.
Saudi Arabia has been hammered with criticism since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul last year.
But wider issues including women’s rights have repeatedly come into the global view.
No Sanctuary in Thailand
In a statement ahead of her trip, Payne said she would lobby for the return to Australia of former Bahraini national footballer Hakeem Alaraibi, who was granted refugee status there after fleeing a crackdown during the Arab Spring.
He is wanted in the Gulf state on charges linked to rioting, which he denies, he was detained in Bangkok in November while trying to go on vacation.
Payne reiterated Australia’s call for Thailand not to send Alaraibi back to Bahrain.
Qunun’s case has revived interest in the plight of the footballer, who has been held in Bangkok detention.
The Saudi weighed in on Alaraibi’s case on her widely followed Twitter account.
“I’m with you #Hakeem,” she tweeted Thursday.
Thailand, which is not a signatory to the UN code on protecting the rights of refugees, has repeatedly faced criticism for detaining or sending back people with asylum claims to repressive regimes.
Australia has also come under fire for re-routing migrants attempting to arrive by boat to offshore island camps.
On Thursday, the Secret Sisterhood — a protest group advocating for Qunun to be granted a humanitarian visa to Australia — held a topless demonstration at Sydney’s bustling Martin Place.
Four women clothed only in jeans and shoes held up signs saying “Let Her In” and calling Qunun a “Sisterhood Hero”.
In Saudi Arabia, Qunun’s asylum plea sparked rare criticism — including from men — of the country’s restrictive “guardianship” laws.
Qunun had told AFP that fleeing her family throws her into conflict with the Saudi system, which allows male family members to make decisions for female relatives, and if returned, she is “100 percent” sure she would be killed by her family.