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Australia FM visits Thailand amid Saudi asylum seeker saga

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.

– No sanctuary in Thailand –

In a statement ahead of her trip, Payne did not mention Qunun’s case.

But she said she would lobby for the return of former Bahraini national footballer Hakeem Alaraibi, who was granted refugee status in Australia after fleeing a crackdown during the Arab Spring.

He is wanted in Bahrain on charges linked to rioting, which he denies.

Alaraibi was detained in Bangkok in November while trying to go on vacation with his wife.

Qunun’s case has revived interest in the plight of the footballer, who has been held in detention since his arrival in Thailand.

“The Thai authorities did the right thing by a young Saudi woman in agreeing not to forcibly remove her and pledged to respect the rule of law,” Human Rights Watch’s Australia Director Elaine Pearson said Thursday.

But it also needs to realise the dangers facing the Alaraibi, she added.

Thailand, which is a not a signatory to the UN’s code on protecting the rights of refugees, has repeatedly faced fierce criticism for detaining or sending back people with asylum claims to repressive regimes.

Australia has also come under fire for re-routing migrants attempting to arrive by boat to offshore island camps.

Social media appears to have played a decisive role in helping Qunun avoid being sent back to a family she accuses of abusing her.

In less than a week Qunun — and supporters who helped manage her Twitter account — have racked up 124,000 followers.

“Don’t let anyone break your wings, you’re free,” she tweeted late Wednesday. “Fight and get your RIGHTS!”



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