Phil Robertson is the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, based in Bangkok.
My mobile phone vibrating next to my head far too early on a Sunday morning was the first indication someone was in trouble. Even in an organization such as Human Rights Watch, that spans time zones across the globe, people don’t usually call at that hour unless it’s urgent. Incoming from Australia, four hours ahead of Bangkok, confirmed my suspicion. Can you talk to a young Saudi woman at the airport being held by Thai officials?
That’s how I met Rahaf Mohammed, first by direct messaging on Twitter and then phone calls and text messages on WhatsApp. She was reaching out to me and any others who could help, and she was in a world of trouble. And so began an urgent journey, one that has lessons for the Rahafs of the future, the vulnerable women fleeing oppression in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and for advocates and governments prepared to help them.
Her first note succinctly said, “Hi. Plz help me. My life in real danger.” She said that a Saudi official took her passport at the Bangkok international airport, and that she was restricted to the airport hotel where she was being guarded. Her hotel room phone was blocked from making calls. Could I call the Thai police or someone to help her?
I called her. Her English was basic, but she was determined to get help. I asked her questions on the phone, and through direct messaging on Twitter, such as how she got to Bangkok, what made her flee Saudi Arabia, how she knew she faced danger if returned and why her father was influential enough to get a Saudi embassy official to intercept her at the airport. The stories came out about being kept in her bedroom for six months for cutting her hair. About having no choices in her life. About not wanting to wear the hijab and being forced to pray. About not wanting to be Muslim. And about the direct menace she felt. As she said, “I’m afraid, Phil, if they take me back. I will be dead.”
Convinced about her bona fides, I got on the phone to prominent members of the international media corps in Bangkok to flag the story for them. Rahaf was already tweeting about her plight, but many journalists were still on the fence on whether to cover the story. Once I filled in details and said we believed her, phone calls started being made to editors to get them on board. Increased media interest and Rahaf’s rapidly growing Twitter following became mutually reinforcing. Reporters started working up plans to get to the international transit area where Rahaf was confined to her hotel, which required buying a ticket and going through immigration.
The Australia Broadcasting Corp. journalist Sophie McNeill was involved from the get-go, ready to document whatever happened. She bought a ticket from Sydney and flew to Bangkok, arriving in the wee hours of Monday.
The other key player to reach was the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. Rahaf’s out-front statement that she renounced Islam, combined with her showing her face on Twitter and seeking help, meant she faced dire consequences from her family and a possible prosecution for apostasy – which carries the death sentence – by the Saudi government. It was clear she would likely meet the legal definition for being a refugee if UNHCR could get access to her, but that was a big “if” judging from Thailand’s recent practice of sending back refugees into harm’s way, and the influence of the Saudi embassy pressing for Rahaf’s return. But I called UNHCR’s Thailand director, and after I explained the situation and shared Rahaf’s message that she wanted to seek asylum, he was ready to help. But, he said, the UN could not just waltz into the international transit area. They needed Thai government permission first to get to her, and then to conduct a refugee status determination interview with Rahaf. Both seemed to require more time than Rahaf had.
At 5 p.m., Rahaf sent me a direct message on Twitter saying: “There is police now” and “The reception call. They want me to open the door. What should I do? They said I only have 5 m[inutes] to open it. I’m afraid.” I told her whatever you do, don’t lose your phone because that’s our lifeline to you. She alerted her network as she was taken out of the room, prompting a series of panicked tweets, and was out of contact for what seemed like a very long time. When she finally popped back up again on Twitter an hour later, back in her hotel room, I let out a long sigh of relief because I feared she had been taken to the airport lockup facility, where it would be impossible to resist deportation. Instead, she had covertly filmed the two Thai Immigration officers who told her that she would be sent back on Kuwait Airways Flight 412 at 11:15 the next morning. It was courageous, and now we had a deadline to work against.
But nothing seemed to be moving. UNHCR was butting its head against a Thai wall of denial. Diplomats from the Canadian, German and Dutch embassies were making calls to Thai officials without much success. I was talking to the media constantly, but the increasing coverage had not moved the situation forward. Rahaf’s rapidly growing Twitter following was asking what to do. When I finally signed off for a few hours of sleep at 3 a.m., she messaged me: “I’m afraid Phil. I have only a few h[ours] left.” I responded to her “Sophie [McNeill] has arrived. She will reach to you soon. Stay strong. Fight all the way. We support you. You have more friends than you know.”
At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Ms. McNeill slipped past a guard and entered Rahaf’s room unseen. Rahaf re-barricaded the door – and for the first time in 36 hours, she wasn’t alone in facing whatever might come. Rahaf hadn’t slept much for more than a day so she was exhausted. Ms. McNeill took photos and filmed a video with Rahaf saying she was not leaving her room until she saw the UNHCR, sent it to me to put out on Twitter and it quickly went viral.
Over the next 90 minutes, there was a constant stream of WhatsApp messages from Ms. McNeill chronicling the parade of Thai officials, airport officers and others demanding that Rahaf open the door. Rahaf refused them all, demanding “I want the UN!” BBC, AP, CNN, Reuters and scores of other journalists had bought cheap tickets to get into the international side of the airport and staked out the hotel lobby. Looming were the countdown to the 11:15 a.m. Kuwait Airways departure and hopes she could resist and earn a reprieve to the next Kuwait Airways flight, on Wednesday. Thousands of people from around the world called the UNHCR office in Bangkok, demanding they send officers to the airport.
When the flight pushed back from the gate without Rahaf on it, the clouds seemed to break. The time bought was precious because it gave Thailand time to re-evaluate the situation. Immigration Commissioner Surachate Hakparn stopped calling it a “family situation” and promised not to send Rahaf back into harm’s way because Thailand is the “land of smiles” and “we will not send anyone back to their death.” UNHCR’s team got to the airport and by about 5 p.m. finally got access, determined she was a refugee and placed her under their protection.
The Canadian government stepped in to bring Rahaf to Canada quickly because her father and brother were in Bangkok trying to get access to her, and she feared these two since she held them responsible for the physical and psychological abuse she had suffered in Saudi Arabia. Only when I saw the photos of Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland greeting her in Toronto did I believe that Rahaf was truly safe.
The drama of Rahaf’s pleas via Twitter, her determination and courage, and the photos and videos of her barricade to save herself made her an Internet phenomenon that may be hard to recreate. But the surge of support she received from social media around the world shows that tapping global support is possible and can be decisive in prompting media and policy-makers to care – and to act. But sadly, this won’t be the last such desperate case. Canada, as a global leader in receiving refugees, and other like-minded countries, need to stand ready to help future Rahafs.