BANGKOK — Australia says it is considering granting a runaway Saudi teenager refugee resettlement after the United Nations on Wednesday deemed her a refugee.
The Department of Home Affairs confirmed in a statement that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had referred 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun to Australia for consideration for refugee settlement.
Alqunun 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 a hotel room.
After publicizing her case via social media, saying she feared for her safety if made to return home to her family, she was placed in the care of U.N. refugee agency workers as her bid for refugee status was considered. This resulted in her referral to Australia on Wednesday afternoon.
Australia's Home Affairs Department said it would "consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals," referring to the U.N. refugee agency.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said Australia's minister for foreign affairs was due to visit Bangkok on Thursday. "Will she take Rahaf back with her?" he tweeted on Wednesday.
Thai officials earlier said that Alqunun was stopped by authorities in Bangkok because she did not have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist, which appeared to have raised a red flag about the reasons for her trip.
After Alqunun barricaded herself in her Bangkok hotel room, her pleas for help over Twitter garnered tens of thousands of followers, and the attention of the UNHCR.
Public pressure prompted Thai officials to return her passport and let her temporarily stay in Thailand.
The Saudi Embassy in Bangok has described Alqunun's case as a "family affair" and said Saudi Arabia had not demanded for her to be deported back home.
Thailand's immigration police chief Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn said that Alqunun's father and brother arrived together in Bangkok on Tuesday but she had refused to meet them.
Alqunun had previously said her family was powerful in Saudi society but did not identify them.
The teenager's case has again highlighted the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia.
Several female Saudi runaways fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home.
Human rights activists say many more similar cases will have gone unreported.
For runaway Saudi women — to whom Saudi law grants male relatives legal guardianship even if they are adults — fleeing can be a matter of life and death, and they are almost always doing so to escape male relatives.