Australian immigration and asylum
Rahaf and Hakeem: why has one refugee captured the world’s attention while another is left in jail?
When it comes to Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun and Hakeem al-Araibi, the reasons are varied but likely include the age-old non-science of what makes news and what doesn’t
(L) Saudi Rahaf al-Qunun; (R) Bahraini football player Hakeem al-Araibi Composite: AFP/Getty/Thai Immigration Bureau/AP Photo
Australia, Thailand and the Gulf states have been inextricably linked in two global news stories lately, when two young people faced being forcibly returned to the places and people they fled simply because they happened to step foot in Bangkok.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman, was on her way to Australia seeking its protection. Twenty-five-year-old Hakeem al-Araibi, heading to Thailand with his wife for their honeymoon, already had it.
Both Al-Araibi and Qunun have captured international headlines – far more than many others in similarly dire situations. But there is no denying Qunun’s case has drawn more support, including, crucially, from the government of Thailand.
‘I’m sure, 100%, they will kill me’
Qunun obtained a tourist visa for Australia, where she intended to claim asylum. She fled her family when they went on a trip to Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, but says she was met on arrival by a Saudi diplomat and was tricked into handing over her passport.
The teenager fears her family will kill her for renouncing Islam – a crime punishable by death under Saudi Arabia’s sharia law – and barricaded herself in the airport hotel room, demanding to speak to the United Nations high commission for refugees (UNHCR).
“I am Rahaf … I am in the hotel, I need a country to protect me as soon as possible. I am seeking asylum,” she said.
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“My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair.
“I’m sure, 100%, they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail.”
Thai authorities initially said she was a runaway and was unsafe without a guardian, but eventually bowed to pressure, allowing the UNHCR to visit.
“She is now under the sovereignty of Thailand,” said the head of Thai immigration, General Surachate Hakparn. “No one and no embassy can force her to go anywhere. Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die.”
She was sent to an undisclosed location, protected by the Thai government. The UNHCR assessed her to be a refugee in need of protection and Australia has said it will consider resettling her.
‘My life will end if I go to Bahrain’
Bahraini national, now Australian resident, Hakeem al-Araibi, was a member of the Bahrain national football team. Al-Araibi claims he was imprisoned and tortured by Bahraini authorities amid a crackdown on athletes taking part in pro-democracy rallies during the Arab Spring, and he fled to Australia and sought asylum in 2011.
In 2014 he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years’ jail at a Bahraini trial beset by claims of coerced confessions, ignored evidence and bias. The conviction related to an act of vandalism which occurred at the same time – or at least not long after – al-Araibi was playing in a televised football match.
In 2017 he was given formal refugee status by Australia.
The previous year he had spoken out publicly against Bahraini royal and president of the Asian Football Confederation, Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, for his lack of action defending the athletes in 2011 when he was head of the Bahrain Football Association.
News in recent weeks have reported tax deals and large scale property developments between Thailand and Bahrain
In late November Al-Araibi and his wife went to Thailand on a delayed honeymoon. He was arrested on arrival by Thai authorities who said they were acting on a red notice from Interpol. Despite the withdrawal of the red notice – which should never have been issued – Thai authorities said Bahrain had separately requested his detention prior to his arrival anyway, and Al-Araibi remains in a Thai prison.
“I don’t want to stay here,” Al-Araibi told Guardian Australia from detention. “I’m a refugee in Australia. I’m scared of the Bahraini government … They will kill me. I don’t know what’s going to happen there. My life will end if I go to Bahrain.”
Stark questions remain about the actions or potential mistakes of Interpol, the Australian federal police, its immigration department and communications between Thailand and Bahrain.
Al-Araibi has applied for Australian citizenship but Australia’s immigration department has not yet granted it and the immigration minister will not comment on it.
Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, has publicly called for Al-Araibi’s release and was due to meet Thai officials on Thursday, but Thailand continues to process Bahrain’s extradition request.
Human Rights Watch has worked closely with both cases, and the UNHCR and Amnesty International are among international human rights groups to publicly lobby for both.
Qunun is not yet out of danger, but her situation, just days after she was stopped at Bangkok airport, is markedly more positive than that of Al-Araibi, who has been locked up for 45 days and counting.
So why the difference?
The reasons are varied but likely include the age-old non-science of what makes news and what doesn’t.
Al-Araibi’s case is also much more complicated based on the known facts, and being subject to an Interpol red notice might have suggested Al-Araibi’s arrest was legitimate.
Qunun was able to get on social media with videos and urgent personal pleas immediately and prolifically. An army of loud and committed online supporters rose up after Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy translated and shared her posts.
In a meeting with Thai immigration, a Saudi official noted the 45,000 followers she quickly gained, and remarked in Arabic: “I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than [taking] her passport.”
Al-Araibi, while he also had a phone and was able to speak directly to journalists and send photos in the first days of his detention, did not attract the instant focus. Some media was far slower – particularly in Australia – to pick up on it, despite the story’s stronger links to the country than Qunun.
Supporters rallied and international media reported the situation, but the chatter didn’t break through to mainstream audiences to the same degree, even when panicked phone calls reported he had been bundled away by Thai authorities and his wife told she would not see him again.
Small protests were held outside Thai consulates in Australia, and the Victorian football community and global players associations rallied. Football Federation Australia, Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation were deafeningly silent for weeks, and even now direct their messages at governments instead of the influential Bahrainis among their own executives.
‘They didn’t forget what he did’
There is perhaps a greater awareness of the horrendous danger to people – particularly women – in Saudi Arabia than of what Al-Araibi faces in Bahrain. The Saudi regime was cast further into the spotlight when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in October.
Women face extraordinary oppression. Under the Saudi guardianship system almost every aspect of a Saudi woman’s life is controlled by a male guardian. They are forbidden from travelling without a male relative as escort, cannot apply for a passport, get medical treatment or seek an education without permission.
Eltahawy said Qunun represented a “breath of fresh air” who had showed Saudi women they could demand freedom and dignity.
In April 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman, was forcibly returned by the Philippines, despite social media pleas, and hasn’t been heard from since.
Fatima Yazbek of the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (GIDHR) notes the death penalty is still carried out on political opponents in Bahrain, citing three executions in 2017, including one sports teacher.
Human rights organisations have documented countless cases of abuse, torture and arbitrary imprisonment of dissidents, including those who sought to flee only to be deported by cooperative governments where they landed.
Bangkok is implicated in more than one instance of a dissident returned to a Bahraini prison cell, where they were beaten and tortured.
Government announcements and local news in recent weeks have reported tax deals and large-scale property developments between Thailand and Bahrain.
“Hakeem is now the icon for the suffering of political detainees in Bahrain,” said GIDHR’s Yahya Alhadid.
A royal family rules Bahrain and populates about half of the cabinet positions, as well as other important roles including the ambassadorship to the UK.
The current Bahraini ambassador to the UK is Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, who was also chair of the information authority in 2011, when state television broadcast pictures and footage of protesting athletes, labelling them as traitors.
The London embassy issued the only public statement from Bahrain, in the days after Al-Araibi’s arrest, defending the red notice.
Alhadid questioned why the London embassy was commenting on a Bahraini who now lived in Australia and was detained in Thailand.
“After Hakeem spoke out they didn’t forget what he did,” he suggested.