Social media, not the UN, saved Saudi woman Rahaf al-Qunun’s life

The plight of a Saudi Arabian woman detained while attempting to flee domestic abuse could have ended very differently.

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In a video posted on Twitter, the Saudi chargé d’affaires in Thailand is filmed discussing the case of Rahaf al-Qunun, an 18-year-old woman from Saudi Arabia who was detained in Thailand while attempting to flee to Australia to escape domestic abuse.

Al-Qunun says her passport was confiscated by Saudi authorities while she was transiting through Bangkok. She barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room for 48 hours to avoid being forced onto a flight to Kuwait and returned to her relatives, and broadcast her plight on Twitter, quickly amassing tens of thousands of followers and the attention of activists. Under mounting public pressure, Thai authorities ceded to her demand to be transferred to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. On 9 January, the agency approved her asylum claim and Australia said it was processing her application to be resettled there permanently.

“I wish they could have taken her phone, rather than her passport,” the diplomat says in the video, which al-Qunun shared while she was still waiting to hear her fate.

It’s a chilling video, and a revealing one too. The diplomat is right. It was thanks to Twitter that al-Qunun’s case came to the attention of Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, the Australian government and a loose network of international rights activists. Without Twitter and the swift action of people like the women’s rights activist Mona Eltahawy, the journalist Sophie McNeill and Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson, al-Qunun would likely have been repatriated and could have been detained by the Saudi government, killed by her family or charged with the death penalty.

In April 2017, the world’s media and human rights organisations saw too late a video posted by another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, from an airport in the Philippines. Like al-Qunun, Lasloom was detained in transit while trying to flee to Australia to escape familial abuse. Her detention was seemingly at the request of Saudi authorities. She was forced screaming onto a plane back to Saudi Arabia, her hands, feet and mouth bound with duct tape. Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia attempted to meet her at the airport in the capital, Riyadh, but Lasloom did not leave with the other passengers. One of the women who went to meet her was arrested, and Lasloom was not seen again. In June 2017, the BBC reported that Lasloom was believed to have been transferred to a women’s detention centre and then to a shelter.

The Saudi diplomat’s comments may also have helped al-Qunun’s case. UN refugee law – which is designed to offer international protection for people fleeing persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group – is often a poor mechanism for aiding victims of domestic violence.

For some citizens, this makes sense: women fleeing abusive relationships in the UK ordinarily do not have to leave the country to access legal and physical protection. But when it comes to citizens of countries that offer little or no protection to domestic violence victims, the situation is different. In these instances, there are variations in how countries interpret UNHCR asylum laws. Last year, for example, the US Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed US policy and made it almost impossible for women fleeing domestic abuse to be granted asylum, even if their home governments cannot or will not protect them.

Al-Qunun’s case was unusual because asylum claims are usually assessed by the host country, rather than by UNHCR directly – a reflection, perhaps, of the worldwide attention to her plight. When it came to assessing her asylum claim, UN officials would have found strong grounds for arguing that she was fleeing more than familial violence. She was also fleeing the persecution of the Saudi state. Al-Qunun says she has renounced Islam, and in Saudi Arabia apostasy is punishable by death.

The UNHCR says it does not comment on individual cases, but it would also likely have considered the reported involvement of Saudi officials in her current predicament, the ill-treatment of other women who have been forcibly returned to Saudi after fleeing domestic violence, and Saudi’s discriminatory domestic legal system, which forbids women from travelling without permission of a male relative and which has imposed prison sentences on women who have fled their homes.

There may also have been disturbing instances of Saudi officials interfering in the asylum claims of women fleeing domestic abuse. Last year, the bodies of two young Saudi women, Tala Farea (16) and Rotana Farea (22), were found bound together by duct tape on the bank of the Hudson River in Manhattan. New York police believe the sisters, who lived with their family in the US and had run away from home, had killed themselves to avoid being returned to Saudi Arabia. Amid all the harrowing details surrounding their death, there is this section in the New York Times report:

“The police said the girls’ mother had received a call from the Saudi embassy notifying her that her daughters had requested asylum in the United States. Law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that the request had prompted the Saudi government to order the family to return home.”

Fatima Baeshen, the spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, pushed back on Friday in a statement, calling reports that her government had ordered the family to leave the United States because the sisters sought asylum “absolutely false”.

If the Saudi authorities were indeed told about the sisters’ asylum claim, and then tried to thwart it, this points to another way in which the international asylum system could fail women fleeing abuse in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qunun will likely not feel truly safe until she on Australian soil, and it is not clear how long this process will take, but no doubt she already feels lucky. Women fleeing violence in Saudi Arabia are often fleeing for their lives – and for her, this last-ditch attempt could easily have ended very differently.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.