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Authorities In Thailand Say Young Saudi Woman Awaiting Deportation Can Stay — For Now


Authorities in Thailand say a young Saudi woman who faced deportation can stay for now. The 18-year-old was detained on Saturday while trying to get to Australia, where she planned to seek asylum. She said her family was abusive and that she feared being harmed or even killed if forced to go back to Saudi Arabia. Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It was touch and go this morning for Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, who began the day wondering if she would be deported back to Kuwait and on to Saudi Arabia, her home. After Thai authorities told her she'd be on the 11:15 a.m. Kuwaiti air flight, she hunkered down in the transit hotel room, barricading the door, furiously sending out tweets about her plight, including this defiant one also posted by Human Rights Watch.


RAHAF MOHAMMED ALQUNUN: I'm not leaving my room until I see UNHCR. I want asylum.

SULLIVAN: She got half her wish. The flight left without her. And in the early evening, United Nations refugee officials were finally allowed in to meet with her and take her from the airport under their care. The asylum request will take more time. And even though the Thai government appears to have given in to international pressure not to force her to return...

PHIL ROBERTSON: Let's see how it plays out. I mean, ultimately actions speak louder than words.

SULLIVAN: Phil Robertson is the Bangkok-based deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. He says it's too early to celebrate given Thailand's mixed record when it comes to asylum-seekers since the military seized power in 2014.

ROBERTSON: We have had cases where Han Chinese who were supposed to resettle to Canada on a Monday were sent back to China on a Saturday. There have been Cambodian refugees, people who are recognized as persons of concern by UNHCR, who were sent back across the border. So I think caution is the watchword that we have to really sort of keep focused on.

SULLIVAN: Robertson is worried about the Saudi response in particular. He doesn't think Saudi Arabia is going to let this go quietly because of the precedent it might set for other Saudi women who might also want to break free of a system that doesn't even allow them to travel abroad without permission from a male relative. For now, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun and her supporters will celebrate the victory however small and hope that she can be allowed to continue her journey interrupted Saturday evening to Australia and, she hopes, to freedom. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.

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