Rahaf Alqunun ‘was terrified’, says reporter who was locked in room with Saudi asylum seeker
Saudi teenager Rahaf Alqunun “was terrified” as officials in Bangkok tried to get her onto a flight to Kuwait, says an ABC journalist who was barricaded with the young asylum seeker inside an airport hotel room.
- ABC’s Sophie McNeil was in the room with Rahaf Alqunun, who fears her family will kill her if she returns to Saudi Arabia
- McNeil says it was clear that authorities ‘would do everything they could’ to get her on a Kuwait Airways flight
- She says Rahaf has been moved to a secret, safe location
Ms Alqunun, 18, flew into Thailand from Kuwait, saying she had a ticket onwards to Australia where she had hoped to seek asylum over fears her family would kill her for renouncing Islam.
But when she arrived in Bangkok she said a Saudi diplomat met her at the airport and tricked her into handing over her passport and ticket, saying he would secure a visa.
The 18-year-old then barricaded herself inside her room at an airport hotel, and requested to speak to the United Nations refugee office.
Sophie McNeill is an ABC 4 Corners journalist who is on leave working on a book. She became involved in the story researching her book and was inside the room as officials tried to get Ms Alqunun on a flight back to Kuwait on Monday.
McNeill said it became clear at about 9:00am (local time) authorities “would do everything they could to get her on that 11:15am flight on Kuwait Airways”.
“The threat was she would go back to Saudi Arabia from there, because she does have family in Kuwait and has spent time there too,” she explained.
“So they were knocking on her door and there was a Kuwaiti Airways representative telling her that she had no choice, but had to get on this flight.
“And she made the decision that she was not going to do that and she did barricade herself in the room.
“She was terrified.”
Thai authorities later relented, deciding not to send Ms Alqunun back to Saudi Arabia, and McNeill said she had moved to a secret location.
“And it is safe,” she said.
Ms Alqunun is now under the protection of the United Nations, and McNeill said the UN wanted the teenager moved to “a third country”.
Teenager ‘particularly terrified’ by reports father had arrived
McNeill said she had heard that the teenager’s father had arrived in Thailand, but “we haven’t seen any proof of that yet”.
“[Ms Alqunun] hasn’t travelled much, English is her second language and she is still learning English, it has been a very emotional experience,” she said.
“She didn’t eat all day yesterday, she didn’t sleep for about three days.
“It is confusing for her, and she is particularly terrified about by these reports that her father has landed in Bangkok.”
‘World is watching more closely’
Ms Alqunun’s plight bears similarities to the case of 24-year-old Saudi woman Dina Ali Lasloom, who sought asylum in Australia in 2017.
Ms Lasloom had arrived in Manila from Kuwait, and also wanted to travel on to Australia when she recorded a video message pleading for help.
The message sparked a social media campaign, dubbed “Save Dina Ali”, but she was returned to Riyadh and nobody from outside Saudi Arabia has her from her since.
“This is why Rahaf’s case is really quite incredible [and] that the world is now watching closely, I think, much closer than they were, what Saudi Arabia is doing to its own citizens,” McNeill said.
Cases of young women trying to flee deeply conservative Saudi Arabia are likely to become more common, according to Ben Rich, a lecturer in international relations and Middle East politics at Curtin University.
He says despite a recent focus on emerging women’s rights in the country, “women still remain extremely in the place of second-class citizenry”.
“Much of [women’s] legal and economic autonomy is still captured under the guardianship laws, in which they need to have a male guardian — be that their father, their husband, or even in some cases their son — make important legal decisions that they have no ability over,” he said.
“This is a real demonstration of that.
“Her claims that she’s been abused physically and mentally is not particularly unexpected under those types of conditions.”