Revisiting the case of #SaveRahaf: Refugee rights under the NCPO’s regime 13 January 2019


Since January 5, 2019, the Twitter hashtag #SaveRahaf took over the social media after it was widely reported that Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman, was arrested and detained at Suvarnabhumi Airport by the Thai immigration authorities. In transit to Australia, Alqunun was attempting to flee her family for fear that they would murder her for renouncing Islam.

Alqunun revealed that her family had always been abusive. In Saudi Arabia, fleeing home is against the law. Therefore, had she been returned there, she could either be killed or face imprisonment. To ensure that the public was aware of her situation, she used her personal Twitter account to post her information including her face pictures, age, passport copy, as well as video clips that showed what was happening to her in detention.

In the beginning, the Thai government suggested that it wanted to return Alqunun to Saudi Arabia via a Kuwait Airlines flight. However, she chose to lock herself inside the hotel room where she was detained, refusing to let the Thai authorities in and to leave the room until after the flight’s departure. Over a short period of time, the media brought her story into a global spotlight thereby pushing the international communities to ramp up political pressures on Thailand to protect her. The Australian government, for instance, issued a statement demanding that the Thai government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) allowed her to enter into the process of refugee status determination.

Eventually, the Thai government decided to abide by international human rights principles by allowing Alqunun to stay in the country temporarily under the protection of UNHCR.

#SaveRahaf Through the Lens of International Law

The case of Alqunun has clearly urged the Thai government to re-think the way it treats asylum seekers- whether it will use the principle of human rights or that of reciprocity to determine a basis of extradition.

First of all, it is crucial to note that Thailand is not a party to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and has no domestic law recognizing the status of refugees and asylum seekers. In other words, Thailand does not welcome asylum. However, the Thai government still is obliged to respect the principle of non-refoulement stipulated under Article 33 of the United Nations’ Refugee Convention because it has attained customary international law status.

Moreover, Thailand has ratified the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, also known as the CAT. Article 3(1) of the CAT states, “No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has violated refugee rights at least four times.

Thailand has ratified the international conventions that set forth non-refoulement obligations on the state parties. Nonetheless, in practice, the Thai government under the NCPO’s administration has breached this principle at least four times as follows:

(1.) Hakeem al-Araibi: A Bahraini footballer
Since November 2018, al-Araibi has been detained by the Thai Immigration Bureau in response to an extradition request from Bahrain. The Bahraini government had convicted him of vandalizing a police station and sentenced him to ten years’ imprisonment. He, nevertheless, denied this allegation.


It has been widely reported that the allegation against al-Araibi might have been politically motivated. Earlier, al-Araibi told the media that he was allegedly detained and tortured by the Bahraini authorities due to his brother’s involvement in anti-government protests during the Arab Spring.

At the moment, al-Araibi remains in detention at the Immigration Detention Center since the Bangkok Criminal Court has ordered an extension of his detention for 60 more days. Several people fear that the history would repeat itself, referring to Thailand’s refoulement of Ali Haroon, another Bahraini national who fled Bahrain after having allegedly been detained and tortured by the Bahraini authorities. After being refouled in 2014, Haroon was tortured again and subjected to life imprisonment.

(2.) Rath Rott Mony: A Cambodian Labor Activist

In early December 2018, Rath Rott Mony was arrested and refouled to Cambodia, following an extradition request from the Cambodian government.  He was allegedly involved in the production of the documentary “My Mother Sold Me” which is a story of an impoverished Cambodian girl who fell victim to sex trafficking. Therefore, the authorities charged him with “incitement to discriminate” for fanning disunity in the Cambodian society.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued public statements demanding that the Thai government should not forcibly return Mony. They argue that there are strong grounds to believe that he could face politically motivated prosecution, arbitrary detention, and inhuman treatment had he been sent back to Cambodia. Previously, another Cambodian labor activist, Ms. Sam Sokha was refouled by the Thai authorities despite having UN-recognized refugee status. Reportedly, the Cambodian court had ruled in absentia that she was guilty of “incitement to discriminate” after having thrown a sandal at the government’s campaigning poster.

(3.) At least 109 ethnic Uighurs

In 2015. the Thai government alleged that the 109 ethnic Uighurs had violated the immigration law. Subjected to the process of nationality verification, 109 were found to be Chinese nationals and thus refouled to China. In November 2017, 20 ethnic Uighurs reportedly fled from the Immigration Detention Center in Sadao District, Songkhla Province. Reuters indicated that they are the last group of ethnic Uighurs among the 200 that had been detained by the Thai authorities since 2014— many of which had been forcibly returned to China earlier in July 2015.

(4.) Gui Minhai: A Bookseller from Hong Kong

In late 2015, Manager Online Newspaper reported that Gui Minhai had disappeared from his residence in Thailand. Later, in January 2016, a Chinese media outlet reported that he had confessed to killing a woman while drunk-driving in 2003.

However, Gui is well-known as a publisher of books critical of the Chinese government. Many people, therefore, raised doubts whether the Chinese authorities really took him only to prosecute him for the hit-and-run accident and whether the Thai government knowingly handed him over to the Chinese authorities.

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