#SaveRahaf: The viral campaign that saved Rahaf al-Qunun

Rahaf barricaded herself in her hotel room and shared her story on social networks. (Human Rights Watch / AP)

Pressure from social networks was a key factor for the young Saudi woman to get refugee status

In the age of the internet, we must take into account the dangers of social networks: for example, personal data stored by these platforms can be used to manipulate and influence people’s opinions.

However, the case of Rahaf al-Qunun, the teen from Saudi Arabia who fled from her family’s abuse, reminds us that networks can be a powerful tool for giving citizens a voice and transforming reality. 

At just 18 years old, Rahaf fled to Australia and was detained in Bangkok (Thailand). She published the first tweets about her situation just after immigration authorities confiscated her passport and thwarted her escape plan.

“I am the girl who fled to Thailand. I am in real danger, because the Saudi Embassy is trying to force my return,” Rahaf wrote in Arabic this January 5 on the Twitter social network. “My father will kill me,” she added.

Rahaf had only 24 followers on Twitter but they were enough that, within hours, her messages captured the attention of thousands of users on the network. She had just begun a viral campaign to stop her deportation to Saudi Arabia.

 

#SaveRahaf

The Saudi embassy pressured the Thai government to deport the teen back to her country, where her rights were not guaranteed.

While she was locked in a hotel at the Bangkok airport, Rahaf published everything that happened to her on Twitter using the hashtag #SaveRahaf. The conversations she had with the Thai authorities, the threats she received from the Saudi embassy … Everything was documented.

In less than 24 hours the teen’s account went from initially having 24 followers to gathering 27,000 followers.

Her messages on Twitter gave testimony of the fear she felt and managed to mobilise thousands of internet users. Among them was Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Pacific region of Human Rights Watch, an organisation that looks out for the observance of human rights.

With his legal experience, Robertson advised Rahaf on the steps she needed to take to get asylum in a country that would guarantee her rights.

 

Pressure from the network can change things

On January 7, everything was prepared to deport Rahaf to Saudi Arabia. The Thai authorities appeared at the hotel where the Saudi teen had barricaded herself.

Meanwhile, through social networks, Rahaf asked for protection from UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, or from any country that would grant refugee status.

Driven by thousands of retweets and favs, Rahaf’s distress messages reached influential diplomats and high-ranking UNHCR officials.

Thus, pressure from social networks and UNHCR intervention were key for the Thai police to return Rahaf’s passport and allow her to travel to Canada, the country that offered to take her in as a refugee.

I wish they had confiscated her mobile phone instead of her passport,” said a Saudi diplomat who negotiated Rahaf’s deportation, which shows the importance of the internet in political and civil rights matters. 

 

Social networks: a tool of protest

Many other women in Saudi Arabia have used social networks to protest against repression and the lack of rights and freedom they suffer in their country.

In recent years, Saudi activists have launched various campaigns to fight for the right to drive, and to protest against the male guardianship system and the strict dress code.

Their stories, along with Rahaf’s, remind us that social networks can become a tool for the defence of human rights where authoritarian governments try to limit them.

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