Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun could by now be sunning herself on Bondi Beach, tasting the freedom she so craves, if it weren’t for a huge mistake she made when she landed in Thailand.
The 18-year-old who fled the oppressive Middle Eastern kingdom of Saudi Arabia last week has claimed she was tortured by her family and would be killed if she was forced to return as she has renounced Islam.
“I’m sure 100 per cent they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail,” she told AFP, and added that she was “scared” and “losing hope”. The woman’s family has denied her claims.
After arriving in Bangkok, Ms Alqunun’s intention had been to fly on to Australia. But Thai authorities detained her and tried to send her back to Kuwait, where she had originally caught her flight.
It was only after she barricaded herself in a hotel room at Suvarnabhumi airport for two days and sent out global pleas via social media that the stance of the Thai immigration official softened.
Her escape had been reportedly planned for months and was aided by three overseas friends — one of whom was in Australia — who kept in touch via social media with Ms Alqunun throughout her trip.
She had already successfully applied for a tourist visa for Australia. The trio had urged her to swiftly transfer through the airport in Bangkok so she could arrive in Australia and apply for asylum as quickly as possible.
However, Ms Alqunun was keen to savour her first experience of freedom away from her family and country, even if just for a few days. So she tried to pass through the border and enter Thailand.
She felt safe to do so because she believed there was no Saudi embassy in Bangkok, which is not the case.
“We friends said ‘no, you cannot stay. It’s too dangerous’,” Shahad, a 19-year-old Saudi woman now based in Sweden after escaping her own family two years ago, told The Australian.
“We bought her a ticket to Australia from Thailand but she didn’t listen to us.”
When she handed over her passport, immigration officials eventually told she would be sent back to home as her father was “very angry”.
Had Ms Alqunun got straight on to her next plane at Bangkok there was a chance she would not have even come to the attention of the Thai authorities.
After grabbing worldwide attention with dramatic posts on social media, Ms Alqunun was eventually placed in the care of the UNHCR preventing her forced return to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.
She has now deemed to be a refugee and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who happens to be in Thailand on another issue, has indicated Australia would be open to Ms Alqunun making an asylum application.
Following the news that she had been deemed a refugee, the young woman tweeted a selfie captioned, “Hey … I’m happy.”
Thailand’s Immigration Police chief has said Ms Alqunun’s father has denied physically abusing her or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, two of the reasons she gave for her flight, reported AP.
The father, whose name has not been released, said he wants his daughter back but respects her decision and believed she fled because she felt neglected.
Originally published as Fleeing Saudi teen’s big mistake