21 May 2024

Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne met her Thai counterpart Thursday, as her country appeared poised to offer to asylum to a young Saudi woman who fled her family to Thailand in a drama relayed in real-time over Twitter.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s attempt to flee the ultra-conservative kingdom has become a cause celebre for rights groups since the 18-year-old landed in Bangkok from Kuwait over the weekend.

Thai authorities had threatened to deport her but with the help of activists, diplomats and a hastily opened Twitter account Qunun launched an impassioned campaign for asylum.

As global interest surged, Thai authorities backed down from the deportation threat, handing her into the care of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok, which has urged Australia to offer resettlement.

Payne’s scheduled visit comes after Canberra dropped strong hints it would accept Qunun.

Australia on Wednesday said the UNHCR had studied her case and designated her as a legitimate refugee.

Qunun alleges abuse by her family, while rights groups also said she had renounced Islam, risking prosecution in conservative Saudi Arabia.

Her father, who denies mistreating her, will remain in Bangkok “until he knows which country she is going to”, Thailand’s immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters Thursday.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok has said it did not demand the teenager’s deportation and that the case was a family affair.

Saudi Arabia has come under fire since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul last year.