Australia FM says country assessing resettlement push for Saudi woman

BANGKOK (AFP) – Australia’s Foreign Minister yesterday declined to say how long it will take to consider a United Nations (UN) request to resettle a young Saudi woman who fled her family, as the 18-year-old’s plight sparked a 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 celebre 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 yesterday and would not speculate on a timeframe if – as Canberra has heavily hinted this week – she is granted refuge status.

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 yesterday.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok has said it did not demand the teenager’s deportation and the case was a family affair.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne shakes hands with Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok yesterday. – AFP

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.

Alaraibi 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 yesterday.

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.

Yesterday, the Secret Sisterhood – a protest group advocating for Qunun to be granted a humanitarian visa to Australia – held a demonstration at Sydney’s bustling Martin Place.

Four women 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.