Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the Saudi Arabian woman who fled her family and is now under UN protection in Thailand, has been sustained through the “terrifying” ordeal by thousands of online messages of support that probably saved her life, a friend has said.

Nourah Alharbi, 20, told the Guardian: “Yesterday, they [social media supporters] made the difference in Rahaf’s life. You saved Rahaf’s life yesterday: the people, the media.”

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Alharbi said Qunun was buoyed when she saw how many messages about her were being posted online. “She couldn’t believe it. Today when I was calling her … [she said] she can see the thousands of messages, all of them supporting her. She’s terrified and stressed, and when she saw the messages it really made a difference for her.”

Online outcry kept 'terrified' Saudi woman who fled from her family safe

Now based in Sydney, Alharbi said she fled Saudi Arabia herself after suffering abuse from her family, and is seeking asylum in Australia. She has kept in close contact with Qunun throughout her ordeal.

She mentioned the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, a 24-year-old Saudi woman who in April 2017 was returned to Saudi Arabia from the Philippines against her will and whose fate is unclear. “She didn’t get that [social media] support and that’s why she’s in Saudi Arabia now – she’s disappeared,” Alharbi said.

On Sunday, Qunun, 18, barricaded herself in a hotel room inside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport to prevent her forcible return to a family she claimed would kill her, following her renouncing of Islam.

She tweeted about her situation, and the Twitter hashtag #SaveRahaf soon gained support. Supporters demanded she stay in Thailand rather than be returned to Kuwait, the point of her departure, and lobbied governments to offer her asylum.

Online outcry kept 'terrified' Saudi woman who fled from her family safe

Alharbi said Qunun was keen to leave the country after hearing reports her father had travelled to Thailand but that she felt safe for the time being. “She called me and said the UN were good and were protecting her,” she said. “Security keep coming and asking about her. She wants to tell everyone that she wants to go outside Thailand – to any safe country.”

Alharbi claimed Australia had cancelled the tourist visa on which Qunun was originally travelling. “I don’t know [the reason] because they’re not answering,” she said. The Australian government is yet to respond to the claim.

Qunun was interviewed by staff from the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR on Tuesday, after they met her on Monday. “It could take several days to process the case and determine next steps,” UNHCR’s Thailand representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis said in a statement. “We are very grateful that the Thai authorities did not send back (Qunun) against her will and are extending protection to her,” he said.

Urging people to keep posting messages about Qunun, Alharbi said: “Yesterday we won, but this is not the big winning. We got her out [of the airport] but we win when we get her out from Thailand. And we will, properly.”

The Australian government said on Tuesday it would “carefully consider” Qunun’s asylum application after the UNHCR process has concluded.

Qunun said she was abducted after arriving in Bangkok and had her passport confiscated by Saudi Arabian diplomatic staff.

She demanded access to the UNHCR and barricaded herself inside her hotel room in fear she would be forced on to a plane after Kuwait Airways officials had come to her door, but Monday’s 11.15am flight departed without her.

Online outcry kept 'terrified' Saudi woman who fled from her family safe

But late on Monday he promised she would not be deported and agreed to consult the UNCHR. He later said she had been taken to a safe house for her asylum claim to be processed. “If she goes home it will be dangerous for her so Thailand is ready to help,” he told media. “We are working with the foreign affairs ministry and UNHCR and today we will allow her entry to Thailand. UNHCR is now taking care of her and working on her asylum claim.”

Surachate said Qunun’s father and brother had arrived in Bangkok and want to talk to her, but that UN officials would need to approve any such meeting.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs said it was monitoring the case closely. “The claims made by Ms Al-Qunun that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning,” a spokesman said on Monday night.

On Tuesday a Department of Home Affairs official told AFP: “Any application by Ms Al-Qunun for a humanitarian visa will be carefully considered once the UNHCR process has concluded.”

Qunun said in a video posted on social media from inside the airport that she was trying to escape from her family because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. She has appealed for help from Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.