Saudi runaway looks set for Aussie welcome

World | ASSOCIATED PRESS 10 Jan 2019

Australia's government is to assess a resettlement bid by a Saudi woman who fled from her family,

That comes with the United Nations deeming her a refugee, taking the woman's high-profile quest for asylum a step forward.

The Department of Home Affairs in Canberra confirmed that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has referred 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for resettlement.

Qunun arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait on Saturday and planned to continue to Australia, for which she held a tourist visa. But after being detained by Thai authorities she refused to board a flight back to Kuwait, barricading herself in an airport hotel room.

After grabbing global attention with dramatic posts on social media about fearing for her safety if made to return home to her family, Qunun eventually was placed in the care of the UNHCR as her bid for refugee status was considered.

Australia's Home Affairs Department said it would "consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals." Indications from Canberra suggest Qunun may receive a sympathetic hearing.

"If she is found to be a refugee then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa," Health Minister Greg Hunt told Australian Broadcasting Corp before the referral. The case has highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia.

Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Rights activists say many more similar cases will have gone unreported.

The influence of the internet on Qunun's case was noted by rights advocates as she received much support.

The representative in Australia of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said it was encouraging Qunun could highlight her situation, and she hoped more Saudi women might act similarly.

Qunun's father and brother arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but she refused to meet them.

Saudi diplomats in Bangkok and Thai officials said earlier that Qunun was stopped by Thai authorities as she did not have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist.

That appeared to have raised a red flag about reasons for her trip.

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