The 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled to Thailand to escape her family has been referred by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to Australia for possible resettlement as a refugee, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said in a statement to CNN.
Rahaf Mohammed Mutlaq Al-Qunun flew to Thailand from Kuwait expressing fear that her family would kill her because she has renounced Islam.
Australia’s announcement suggests the UNHCR, which had been assessing Qunun’s protection claims, determined her to be a legitimate refugee. The UNHCR in Thailand declined to comment.
“The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement. The Department of Home Affairs will consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals,” the Australian government said in a statement.
Earlier on Wednesday, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said there would be no “special treatment” in the case, according to CNN affiliate Nine News.
“Nobody wants to see a young girl in distress and she has obviously now found a safe haven in Thailand,” Mr Dutton told reporters in Brisbane.
Qunun and her supporters drew the world’s attention to her case through a global social media campaign launched mostly on Twitter. Qunun documented her arrival and subsequent detention in
Bangkok on her smart phone, creating new Twitter and Periscope accounts where she received a deluge of supportive messages.
It was enough to pressure the Thai authorities to allow her access to the UNHCR and not deport her to Kuwait, where her family are currently believed to be based. Her online campaign was so successful that Saudi charge d’affaires Abdalelah Mohammed A. al-Shuaibi told Thai officials through a translator: “We wish they had confiscated her phone instead of her passport.”
The spotlight is on those countries that might assist in her resettlement. Under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Qunun ought to be entitled to stay in the host county and have her claim heard.
However, Thailand is not a signatory to the Convention and does not guarantee the rights of refugees.
In actual fact, Thai authorities have a history of sending asylum seekers and even registered refugees back to their home countries at the request of foreign governments.
On Monday, Thailand’s immigration police chief, Surachet Hakpal said that Qunun was “now under the sovereignty of Thailand” and “we will protect her as best as we can.”
“Since she escaped trouble to seek our help, we are the Land of Smiles, we will not send anyone to their death. We won’t do that, we will adhere to the human rights principles under the rule of law,” he said.
Qunun will have to wait in Thailand until Australia has considered the UNHCR’s referral for refugee resettlement.
Qunun expressed a wish to be granted asylum in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom or the United States.
Resettlement is not an automatic right for refugees, however, and less than 1% of registered refugees globally are resettled each year, a UNCHR spokesperson told CNN in an email.
In most cases, those applying for asylum in a country do so at the border or once inside, whereas those wanting to apply for an immigration status from outside the country will only be allowed to do so if they have refugee status.
The Australian Department of Home Affairs said it would “carefully consider” granting Qunun a humanitarian protection visa if she applies for one.
“Any application by Ms Alqunun for a humanitarian visa will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded,” a spokesperson told CNN affiliate Nine News.
A humanitarian visa would permit her to stay permanently in Australia and have the right to work and study. Qunun would also be able to propose or sponsor family members for permanent residence.
But refugees can wait their whole lives for a third country to resettle them. The process is often assessed on the urgency of a refugee’s individual needs with the most vulnerable prioritized. Refugees can wait from nine months to several years to hear an answer — longer if they appeal a refusal.
Australia said Qunun’s application would be processed “in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals,” and so it could potentially take years for her to hear a decision.
According to the UNHCR, the US resettlement program is the largest in the world, with 53,716 refugees being resettled in 2017. Canada, Australia and the Nordic countries also open a “sizeable number” of places annually.
To be accepted for resettlement in Canada, Qunun must be referred by the UNHCR, a designated referral organization, or a private sponsorship group. If accepted, a refugee is granted permanent resident status upon arrival in Canada and permanent residents can become eligible to apply for citizenship once all requirements are met.
The US conducts it’s own security process to decide whether to accept a refugee for resettlement. According to the UNHCR, the process involves collecting biometric data and the application is then passed through eight government agencies, six separate security databases, five background checks, and three in person interviews. The whole process can take up to two years.