Qunun warmed hearts, Araibi still in the cold



The world sat gripped last Monday as 18-year-old Saudi-national Rahaf al-Qunun live-tweeted her mad dash to freedom. From a barricaded room in a hotel at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport she told Twitter she was not going back to her family in Kuwait and no one could make her. The teenager said her family would torture her, even kill her, if she was forced to go back because she had abandoned her religion.

Rahaf al-QununShe claimed Saudi diplomats had confiscated her passport in the terminal and she was determined to meet with officials from the United Nations Refugee Agency. The world cheered when photos of her being escorted from the airport by UN workers emerged.

Hakeem al-Araibi has not been so lucky. The Bahraini soccer player has been living in Australia since 2014 after fleeing his home where he says the government tortured him. A former player for the Bahrain national side, he says he was jailed after publicly criticising Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa — a member of the Bahrain royal family — who he says orchestrated a crackdown on players during the Arab spring. He was given refugee status and a place in the Pascoe Vale soccer club.

Araibi's current nightmare is emblematic of the bureaucratic mess forced on refugees worldwide. Araibi flew into Bangkok in late November for his first holiday with his wife since 2014. He was immediately picked up by immigration authorities after his name was flagged for an Interpol red notice issued by Bahrain. That red notice has since been cancelled but he remains in Thai detention in limbo with officials possibly still set to extradite him.

While Australia has provided assistance via representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, their hands are somewhat tied given Araibi is not a citizen. Pushes from human rights lawyers and activists in Australia for him to be granted citizenship as a matter of urgency have fallen on deaf ears in Minister Peter Dutton's office.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne headed to Bangkok on Thursday to assist in the Qunan case and, she says, 'advocate' for Araibi while meeting with Thai officials. 'Mr Al-Araibi was granted permanent residency by the Australian government in recognition of his status as a refugee,' she clarified in a comments published by the Guardian. Accurate, but hardly the 'maximum pressure' supporters called for during a protest in Sydney.

It beggars belief that the Australian soccer community, which has called on its combined 350,000 members across the country to contact the Department of Home Affairs, is more interested in ensuring the safety of a locally-based refugee than the Australian government. It's particularly galling that he has been left to languish when that same department has moved so quickly in issuing carefully worded statements which suggest Qunun will be granted a humanitarian visa. The difference in the response to the two incidents is telling of what motivates Dutton.


"It's hard to read the disparity in these outcomes as anything beyond the minister reacting to the pressure of international social media — and that is no way to run an immigration program."


Qunun's plight captures a wider dominant global story. Last year, the world collectively woke up to some of the more sinister aspects of Saudi Arabia after the shocking murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. This should certainly have occured much sooner. Arab feminists have warned the world for years, and coverage of the Saudi-led war in Yemen should have been enough for these flags to turn a deeper shade of red. But now, at least, the very real threat some Saudi women face in their own homes is finally being recognised.

Bahrain is a harder story to understand. According to Human Rights Watch, the country's record continues to deteriorate and authorities are rarely held accountable for abuses. But, with a closed media and no lightning rod news in recent years, the world is largely unfamiliar with the situation in the country. It's these abuses which forced Araibi to Australia to begin with. Araibi was also not able to access social media, whereas Qunun's use of Twitter ensured the entire world was on her side, piling on the pressure for both the Thai and Australian governments to intervene.

'Since Thailand is the Land of Smiles, of course we won't send someone to their death,' immigration chief Surachate Hakparn said shortly before Qunun was released into the custody of the UN's refugee agency. It's a lovely sentiment, but it provoked outrage among Araibi's supporters and no doubt among anti-death penalty activists within Thailand.

Like many of its Southeast Asia neighbours, Thailand is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and has a spotty history of supporting refugees who find themselves in the country. Still, with Bangkok both an increasingly vital transit hub and a rising global city it is becoming aware that its reputation can and will be damaged.

Qunun will likely prove deserving of the humanitarian visa. But what happens after? What will Dutton do if Qunun finds herself in the same perfect storm Araibi is in? Araibi has been found to be a 'genuine' refugee, but not genuine enough for Dutton. It's hard to read the disparity in these outcomes as anything beyond the minister reacting to the pressure of international social media — and that is no way to run an immigration program.



Erin CookErin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist with a focus on South East Asia, and editor of the SEA news digest Dari Mulut ke Mulut.

Topic tags: Erin Cook, Rahaf al-Qunun, Hakeem al-Araibi, Thailand, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jamal Khashoggi



submit a comment

Existing comments

Why would anyone assume that Dutton will grant asylum to Rahaf al-Qunun ? All he needs to do, and will do, is wait for the news cycle to move on to the next 'sensational' incident and she too will be consigned to the 'not my problem' basket. There was a time when immigrants, like Hakeem al-Araibi, would be welcomed and encouraged to become 'New Australians' as quickly as possible and entitled to all that any other Australian citizen was entitled. Not so now, it suits Dutton and the rest of the Coalition cabinet to keep the newcomers 'in their place', grateful and submissive.
Ginger Meggs | 11 January 2019

I have no confidence in this Australian Government, or in Minister Dutton, to act fairly and compassionately towards people seeking asylum. Just consider the way so many desperate people have been detained in off-shore hell-holes for years by this Government, some at the sacrifice of their lives. Our Government seem to be more interested in wedging Labor politically on this issue than in acting humanely and compassionately to desperate asylum seekers. Boat turn-backs are all that is needed to stop the people smugglers continuing to operate. Ever since John Howard effectively used the Tampa crisis to political advantage to help win an election, Australia's immigration policy has had some shameful features. I was once a proud Australian but no longer. Our international reputation continues to be trashed by our cruel treatment of those seeking asylum in our country and by some of our politicians playing politics at the expense of the lives of desperate people.
Grant Allen | 14 January 2019

How can this be an issue of Australian policy when it was clearly a Thai sovereign issue? Thailand showed little interest in refugee obligations. Publicity and pressure pushed it to act. Thailand "hosts" 100,000 refugees on its borders. Is numbers of refugees "hosted" meaningless? Does this incident reveal the difficulties of seeking asylum? Qunan's need was protection. Why did discussion not distinguish protection, assessment, asylum, rescue? Was Senator Hansen Young’s call to issue a visa immediately too quick, playing to emotions, challenging of Thai sovereignty? Can too much chest thumping and reaction often be at the expense of influence, collaboration and diplomacy? Are our attitudes driven by emotions that often end up being counterproductive to better refugee outcomes? Refugee policy is more than spending and resettlement. Should it be governed by what pictures are taken; who is elected; quick fixes; whether people can speak English or use phones? What impact will the investment through the ALP’s promise of $500 million over 5 years to UNHCR have on refugee outcomes in Asia? Why did Australia’s Women At Risk program, that has brought to Australia over 13,000 female refugees like Quran, not get any attention or uplift from this incident? Is discussion of refugee issues in Australia clearly cruelled?
John Kilner | 15 January 2019

Erin reveals the core of the issue - the politics surrounding the asylum seeker system. The whole system is politicised. Let's boo and hurrah on cue. "Boo" [Dutton, Thailand, anything Australia seems to do nowadays, non signatories to the refugee convention etc] and "hurrah" [Canada, advocates helping this girl, human rights people etc.] Canada was probably acting strategically and politically when granting her a visa as they are having an ongoing spat with Saudi Arabia. Hey, that's ok, that's good politics. Or is it? What on earth must the 8,000 plus refugees who live in Bangkok, awaiting resettlement, make of this issue? What's the learning outcome for them? How about this - that's its just one big great circus. Boo, hurrah.
John Kilner | 16 January 2019

Thank you Erin Cooke for this very important article about two very important human rights cases. Rahaf al Qunun certainly did warm the hearts of the western world and thanks to the Canadian government she has obtained asylum fairly quickly. It is to be hoped that many more Saudi women show the same level of courage as Rahaf and escape the brutal, undemocratic, misogynist and human rights abusing Saudi regime that treats its citizens - especially women - so appallingly. I agree with Grant Allen that sadly we cannot rely on Australia's Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton to take an initiative to support the human rights of asylum seekers. Compassion does not appear to be in his lexicon and this explains his refusal to grant Hakeem al-Araibi, the Bahraini soccer player, asylum - even though he has refugee status. My understanding is that Hakeem could be getting far more support from FIFA too, but isn't. His situation is much more complicated as Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, a member of the ruling Bahrain royal family is the president of the Asian Football Confederation and has a lot of influence on FIFA. International human rights activists need to work together to ensure that politicians and other key people from human rights abusing regimes do not have any say about human rights issues in the wider world. They must also assist movements in such regimes to win respect for human rights.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 16 January 2019


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up