Image: AP

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the teenager who locked herself in a Thailand airport hotel room to avoid being returned to her abusive home in Saudi Arabia, has been granted protection as a refugee by the United Nations.

Al-Qunun’s friend Nourah Alharbi, 20, credits the far-reaching social media campaign and attention from international media with saving al-Qunun’s life. “Yesterday, they [social media supporters] made the difference in Rahaf’s life. You saved Rahaf’s life yesterday: the people, the media,” she told the Guardian.

On Saturday, al-Qunun ran away from her family, who was in Kuwait, and arrived in Bangkok with a ticket to Australia as her final destination. Though she had a valid three-month tourist visa, upon her arrival to Thailand, a Saudi diplomat seized her passport. Thai officials planned to deport her, but al-Qunun barricaded herself in her hotel room and pled the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for asylum on social media under #SaveRahaf. After facing pressure from reporters, activists, and the UNHCR, Thai authorities granted al-Qunun access to UNHCR to assess her asylum claim.

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“My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things,” Al-Qunun told Reuters, describing “physical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months.”

According to Saudi law, male relatives have legal guardianship over women, meaning that the fate of runaway women lies in their male relatives’s hands. For Al-Qunun, that could have meant death.

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“They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education,” she said. “They won’t let me drive or travel. I am oppressed. I love life and work and I am very ambitious but my family is preventing me from living.”

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In 2017, 24-year-old Saudi woman Dina Ali Lasloom fled to the to the Philippines, but was forcibly returned to Saudia Arabia. Her fate is unknown. “She didn’t get that [social media] support and that’s why she’s in Saudi Arabia now – she’s disappeared,” Alharbi said of Lasloom.

Al-Qunun’s journey is still far from over. “It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” UNHCR’s Thailand representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis said in a statement. “We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back (Qunun) against her will and are extending protection to her.”

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Australia is “carefully considering” al-Qunun’s case. In the meantime, her al-Qunun has asked that the media and public continue to pressure officials to follow-through on securing her asylum. “I’m not safe yet,” her account tweeted. “Hopefully, I will be transferred to a safe country soon.”