(Bangkok) – Thailand authorities should immediately halt the planned deportation of a Saudi woman who says she is fleeing domestic abuse and fears for her safety if forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also allow her unrestricted access to make a refugee claim with the Bangkok office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and should respect UNHCR’s decision under the agency’s protection mandate.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, told Human Rights Watch that she arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on the evening of January 5, 2019, en route from Kuwait to Australia, but was met by a representative of the Saudi embassy who seized her passport to prevent her from traveling to Australia. Saudi and Thai officials told her she would be forced to return to Kuwait on the morning of January 7, where her father and brother are awaiting her.
“Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation, and either allow her to continue her travel to Australia or permit her to remain in Thailand to seek protection as a refugee.”
Al-Qunun said she fled while her family was visiting Kuwait, which unlike Saudi Arabia, does not require a male relative’s approval for an adult woman to depart the country. She said that she was fleeing abuse from her family, including beatings and death threats from her male relatives, who also forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair.
Al-Qunun began tweeting about her situation beginning at 3:20 a.m. Bangkok time via a Twitter account she created in January. In an English-language tweet, she wrote, “I’m the girl who run away from Kuwait to Thailand. I’m in real danger because the Saudi embassy trying to forcing me to go back to Saudi Arabia, while I’m at the airport waiting for my second flight.”
She tweeted that she was being held in an airport hotel and that Saudi embassy officials told her she would be returned to her family in Kuwait in the late morning of January 7.
Al-Qunun told Human Rights Watch that at about 5 p.m. on January 6, Thai immigration officers took her from her hotel room and informed her that she could not enter Thailand because her visa was “rejected” and that she must return to Kuwait on January 7. She then returned to her room. However, she had not applied to enter Thailand because her passport was taken, along with her plane ticket to Australia.
Thai authorities have so far prevented Al-Qunun from having access to UNHCR to make a refugee claim even though it is evident she is seeking international protection. Under customary international law, Thailand is obligated to ensure that no one is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution, torture or ill-treatment, or other serious human rights violations. As a party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Thailand has a treaty obligation not to return anyone to a territory where they face a real risk of torture or ill-treatment.
Al-Qunun may be at serious risk of harm if returned to her family. She also faces possible criminal charges in Saudi Arabia, in violation of her basic rights, for “parental disobedience,” which can result in punishments ranging from being returned to a guardian’s home to imprisonment, and for “harming the reputation of the kingdom” for her public appeals for help.
Human Rights Watch has documented that under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry, or be released from prison, and may be required to provide a guardian’s consent to work or get health care. These restrictions last from birth until death, as the Saudi state views women as permanent legal minors.
While Saudi Arabia has some regulations to combat domestic violence, guardianship makes it extremely difficult for victims of violence to seek protection or obtain legal redress for abuse. The near impossibility of transferring guardianship away from abusive relatives can condemn women to a life of violence. Shelters for survivors of domestic violence often send women back to home if their abusers sign a pledge not to harm them, and women cannot leave such shelters without a male relative to receive them.
In a similar case involving a Saudi woman, in April 2017 Dina Ali Lasloom was forcibly returned to her family in Saudi Arabia while in transit in the Philippines en route to Australia. Human Rights Watch received reports that she was detained in a shelter in Riyadh for some time. It is not clear if she has since been returned to her family. Human Rights Watch has documented other cases of Saudi women attempting to flee their families in recent years, only to face similar risks of forced return.
“Once again we are seeing the abusive influence of Saudi authorities abroad as they seek to forcibly return Saudi women fleeing mistreatment and violence by their families,” Page said. “Apparently, Saudi authorities not only want to perpetuate systematic discrimination of women at home and prevent Saudi women from freely travelling abroad, but also ensure that those who manage to escape are forced back to a life of abuse.”