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Saudi woman who rejected Islam and then hid from family in Thai hotel gets UN protection after social media campaign

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Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun had feared being sent back to her family

LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images

An 18-year-old Saudi woman who barricaded herself in a Thai hotel room because said she feared that her family might kill her for leaving Islam is now under the protection of the United Nations' refugee agency.

What's the background?

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun travelled with her family from Saudi Arabia into neighboring Kuwait. Once there, she got on a plane to Thailand, hoping to travel from there to Australia. It was an escape she said she had been planning ever since she was 16.

Al-Qunun said that she had renounced Islam, and she was afraid about what her family, and the Saudi government, would do to her. The Saudi legal system views abandoning Islam as a crime punishable by death.

"They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism," she said, according to the New York Times. "They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn't want to."

According to al-Qunun, her family had beaten her frequently, and one time kept her locked in a room for six months because they did not approve of the way she had cut her hair. A friend of al-Qunun's told the BBC that she believes al-Qunun's father works for the Saudi government.

In addition to facing crimes for leaving Islam, if she's returned home al-Qunun could also face criminal charges for leaving the country without a male relative's permission. She told the New York Times that she had managed to escape while in Kuwait because women there are allowed to travel on their own.

But when al-Qunun arrived in Thailand, she was stopped and her passport was taken from her. The Saudi government demanded that she be sent back to her family immediately, and for a while it seemed like the Thai government would oblige. She was in danger of being sent back on a Kuwait Airlines flight to Saudi Arabia.

"My brothers and family and the Saudi Embassy will be waiting for me in Kuwait," she told Reuters. "My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things."

What happened next?

Desperate, al-Qunun barricaded herself inside an airport hotel room, and demanded to meet with U.N. officials. With the help of human rights advocates, she posted videos and launched a social media campaign to raise awareness to her plight. She talked about what she feared would happen if she was returned to her family, and demanded asylum.

She said she was seeking refuge because of "[p]hysical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months. They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education."

On Monday, the chief of Thailand's immigration police said that al-Qunun was "allowed to stay" in his country, and that she had "left the airport with the UNHCR [United Nations Human Rights Council]." He stressed that the Thai government would not force her to return to Saudi Arabia, adding "Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die."

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