This Jan 7, 2019 photo shows 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun, center, being escorted by a Thai immigration officer, right, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok. (THAI IMMIGRATION BUREAU / AFP)
BANGKOK — The father of an 18-year-old Saudi woman asylum seeker who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her, has arrived in Bangkok and wished to meet his daughter, Thailand’s immigration chief said on Tuesday.
But Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s father and brother would have to wait and see whether the UN refugee agency would allow them to see her, immigration chief Surachate Hakpan said.
“The father and brother want to go and talk to Rahaf but the UN will need to approve such talk,” Surachate told reporters.
The UN refugee agency on Tuesday said it was investigating Qunun’s case after she fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her if she were sent back to Saudi Arabia.
Activists are concerned about what Saudi Arabia will do after Thai authorities reversed a decision to expel her and allowed Qunun to enter the country under the care of the UNHCR.
“The father is now here in Thailand and that’s a source of concern,” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, told Reuters.
“We have no idea what he is going to do ... whether he will try to find out where she is and go harass her. We don’t know whether he is going to try to get the embassy to do that.”
Lawmakers and activists in Australia and Britain urged their governments to grant asylum to 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 while the UNHCR processes her application for refugee status, 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 journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi 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 her extradition.
“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.
The Thai immigration chief said on Monday 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. A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said “the claims made by Ms Al-Qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning.”
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.
HONG KONG NEWS