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Australia has said it will assess a runaway Saudi woman for settlement after the United Nations deemed her a refugee.

The Department of Home Affairs confirmed that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had referred 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun to Australia for consideration for refugee settlement.

Ms Alqunun arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait on Saturday and planned to continue to Australia, for which she held a tourist visa.

But after being detained by Thai authorities, she refused to board a flight back to Kuwait, barricading herself in a hotel room.

After publicising her case via social media, saying she feared for her safety if made to return home to her family, she was placed in the care of UNHCR workers as her bid for refugee status was considered.

It led to her referral to Australia on Wednesday.

“The UNHCR has referred Ms Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” Australia’s Home Affairs Department said.

It added that it would “consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals”.

Indications from Canberra suggest Ms Alqunun may receive a sympathetic hearing.

Before the UNHCR’s referral, health minister Greg Hunt said Australia would consider giving Ms Alqunun a humanitarian visa if the UNHCR process found her to be a refugee.

“Pending the outcome of that, if she is found to be a refugee, then we will give very, very, very serious consideration to a humanitarian visa,” he said.

Ms Alqunun’s case has again highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Several female Saudi runaways fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many more similar cases will have gone unreported.

In Bangkok, Thailand’s immigration police chief said that Ms Alqunun’s father and brother arrived together in Bangkok on Tuesday but Ms Alqunun refused to meet them.

After Ms Alqunun barricaded herself inside her Bangkok hotel room, her pleas for help over Twitter garnered tens of thousands of followers, and the attention of the UNHCR.

Public pressure prompted Thai officials to return her passport and let her temporarily stay in Thailand.

Ms Alqunun alleged several times that Saudi officials were involved in seizing her passport. However, in repeated statements, the Saudi embassy in Bangkok said it was only monitoring her situation.

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