The news is currently buzzing with stories about Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun – an 18-year-old woman fleeing her abusive family in Saudi Arabia to claim asylum in Australia.
Rahaf was stopped in Bangkok en route to Australia, and had barricaded herself inside an airport hotel room pleading for help from various countries around the world, including Australia, the US, the UK and Canada.
Since being picked up by the media, there has been a national outcry to grant Qunun an Emergency Humanitarian Visa to Australia. Qunun did have an Australian Tourist Visa, however was detained in Thailand as a Tourist visa does not allow someone to claim asylum.
While Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s story is heartbreaking, she is far from the only person desperate to claim asylum in Australia, and many are claiming she should not receive special treatment.
Today we cut through the opinions with some legal facts, including: what is an emergency travel visa, what makes a refugee, and who can claim asylum in Australia.
What is an Emergency Humanitarian Visa?
This Visa is offered under the Special Humanitarian Program from the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs, and applies specifically to people currently outside Australia, living outside their own home country, and who are subject to substantial discrimination in their home country amounting to a gross violation of their human rights.
Saudi Arabia enforces male guardianship laws, which require that women, regardless of age, have the consent of a male relative — usually a father or husband — to travel, obtain a passport or marry.
Qunun said she would be imprisoned or worse if she was sent back to Saudi Arabia, telling Human Rights Watch she was fleeing abuse from her family, including beatings and death threats from male relatives, who forced her to remain in her room for six months for cutting her hair.
If upheld by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, these facts would definitely be considered as substantial discrimination and be grounds for granting an emergency humanitarian visa.
What makes a refugee?
An asylum seeker is a person who has fled their own country and applied for protection as a refugee. A refugee is a person who is outside their own country and is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their:
- membership of a particular social group or
- political opinion.
Asylum seekers or refugees and migrants have very different experiences and reasons for moving to another country. Migrants choose to leave their home country, and can choose where to go and when they might return to their home country. Asylum seekers and refugees, on the other hand, flee their country for their own safety and cannot return unless the situation that forced them to leave improves.
Who can claim asylum in Australia?
Australia has international obligations to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive and whether they arrive with or without a visa.
As a party to the Refugee Convention, Australia has agreed to ensure that asylum seekers who meet the definition of a refugee are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. This is known as the principle of non-refoulement.
Australia also has obligations not to return people who face a real risk of violation of certain human rights under the ICCPR, the CAT and the CRC, and not to send people to third countries where they would face a real risk of violation of their human rights under these instruments. These obligations also apply to people who have not been found to be refugees.