Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, an 18-year-old from Saudi Arabia, in her hotel room in Bangkok on Monday. She said on social media that she feared her family members would kill her if she were forced to return home.CreditCreditHuman Rights Watch, via Associated Press
BANGKOK — A young Saudi woman who fled her family and was facing deportation from Thailand won a brief reprieve Monday after she posted a short video from her barricaded hotel room asking for asylum.
Thai immigration officials, who had said earlier that they would put her on a plane to Kuwait, allowed her to remain behind in the Bangkok airport hotel as the flight departed Monday morning.
“We will not send someone back to die,” the Thai immigration chief, Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, told reporters later. “We would not do that.”
The Saudi woman, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, attracted global attention overnight after she said on social media that she feared her family members would kill her if she were forced to return home.
She said she slipped away from her family Saturday during a trip to Kuwait, where women are allowed to travel without a male guardian, unlike in Saudi Arabia, and flew on her own to Bangkok.
She planned to spend a few days in Thailand and continue to Australia, where she had a visa ready and planned to request asylum.
But on arrival at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, she was intercepted by a man she identified as Saudi who said he would help her. Instead, he took her passport and brought over Thai immigration officials, who said they would send her back to Kuwait by her family’s request.
Early Monday, she recorded a video saying she would not leave her hotel room until she spoke with the United Nations Refugee Agency. She and the rights group Human Rights Watch, which is helping her, posted the video on Twitter.
“I want asylum,” she said in a clear, calm voice.
Gen. Surachate, the immigration chief, said he would meet with Ms. Alqunun and officials of the United Nations agency on Monday afternoon and discuss what she wants to do.
If she wants to apply for asylum in Australia or another country, he said he would try to facilitate her request by speaking with their embassies.
“If she doesn’t want to go back then we cannot send her back,” he said. “Right now, she doesn’t want to go back. So, we will not force her. We will not deport her today.”
A staff member at the United Nations agency said that the office had been flooded with phone calls about Ms. Alqunun’s case and that representatives had gone to the airport to meet with Thai officials about her situation.
The deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, who has been helping to coordinate efforts to prevent her deportation, said Ms. Alqunun’s status had not been resolved and that the possibility remained that she could be put on a later flight.
Thai immigration officials had not allowed her to meet with the United Nations refugee officials at the airport, he said.
Thailand, which has been run by a military regime since 2014, is not a signatory to international agreements allowing travelers to seek asylum and is not bound by her asylum request.
Ms. Alqunun’s plight has attracted attention from around the world. She opened a Twitter account this weekend and already has tens of thousands of followers.
In an interview with The New York Times early Monday, Ms. Alqunun said she had been planning her escape since she was 16. She said her brother and other family members often beat her and that she was locked in a room for six months because she cut her hair in a fashion they did not like.
“They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism,” she said. “They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”
By Richard C. Paddock