Saudi sisters hiding in Hong Kong face imminent deportation | World news
Rawan and Reem are watching the clock. At the end of the day on Thursday the sisters, who escaped from Saudi Arabia almost six months ago, could be deported home where they face prison, beatings, and possibly death.
The women, who are using aliases out of fear of retribution by members of their family, have been in legal limbo since landing in Hong Kong in September after an aborted attempt to reach Australia where they hoped to get asylum. Their “tolerated overstay” in the city as visitors ends on Thursday, according to their lawyer. They risk arrest, prosecution and possibly removal.
Their options are limited. They are hoping to be granted emergency visas to travel to a third country where they have a chance of being given asylum – Hong Kong resettles very few refugees. In the meantime, they have applied for an extension of their stay in Hong Kong.
If that is not granted they are not sure what will happen. The sisters, who have renounced Islam, fear the worst if returned to their family in Saudi Arabia.
“Death. We fear from honour killings,” said Rawan. The sisters, wearing T-shirts and torn jeans, with their hair and faces uncovered, are in a hotel room where they believe it is safer to meet.
The consequences are severe for Saudi women who attempt to run away. They can go to prison, be beaten and in some cases killed by their family members.
“It’s just really bad stories, daily, every week,” said Rawan. “We can’t even count them,” Reem added. She says such cases are kept quiet, barely covered up. “They will say she had a heart attack, even though she was only 20.”
Years of violence, verbal abuse, and being controlled in everything from what they wore to their tone of voice and who they would marry pushed the sisters to escape from their home last year.
“Our rooms were the prison cell and our fathers and brothers were the prison keepers. Saudi Arabia is one big prison,” Reem said.
On 6 September, after two years of planning and squirrelling away money earned from memorising verses of the Qu’ran, Rawan and Reem fled while on a family holiday in Sri Lanka. They had visitor visas for Australia, a destination they chose because of its electronic visa application and because they believed it was committed to human rights.
In the middle of the night, they stole their passports from their parents’ room, took a cab to the airport in Colombo and boarded the first leg of their journey to Melbourne, with a two-hour layover in Hong Kong.
By the time they arrived in Hong Kong about five hours later, Saudi officials were already waiting. According to the sisters, a Saudi consular official tried to pressure them into taking a flight to Dubai, first telling them they had an issue with their passports and then that their mother was ill.
But the sisters refused. They knew what had happened to Dina Ali Lasloom, a Saudi woman who in 2017 also attempted to get to Australia to seek asylum. She was caught in Manila and forced onto a plane to Riyadh, reportedly bound and gagged.
“They thought we are idiots, “ said Rawan. “They think I am just teenager and I will believe him. They didn’t know I’ve been planning for two years. They didn’t know I know what they did to Dina Ali… but I knew what I was doing.”
The women grabbed their passports from the official and ran to the gate of their Cathay Pacific flight for Melbourne only to discover their tickets had been cancelled. They tried to book another flight, this time on Qantas, but a Saudi official appeared again, telling airline staff and an immigration official the girls’ mother was ill and that they had stolen money.
Thwarted again, the sisters decided to enter Hong Kong and make a new plan. A few days later they received a notice that their Australian visas had been revoked. It has now been almost six months of hiding and waiting.
“I feel that all this time has been wasted, just like I wasted my life in Saudi Arabia. I feel like I haven’t started my life yet, like it’s zero. My entire age is zero,” said Reem.
They were disappointed their visas to Australia were cancelled but not surprised. “I take a tourist visa, but I am going to seek asylum … so I was disappointed but I understand that,” said Rawan.
The Australian government has been approached for comment.
A pattern of desperation
The case is the latest example of women attempting to escape from Saudi Arabia, emboldened by examples of others before them and aided by social media and access to resources online.
In January, Rahaf Mohammed, 18, barricaded herself in a hotel room in Bangkok to prevent being deported back to Saudi Arabia. She pled online for help and was eventually granted asylum in Canada. Rawan and Reem, hopeful Mohammed’s case will prove a positive precedent for theirs, have been posting on Twitter.
Activists say hundreds of women try to escape the kingdom each year.
“We have received an increasing number of accounts of Saudi women attempting to flee Saudi Arabia for various reasons, which include escaping systematic discrimination in Saudi Arabia under the male guardianship system as well as fleeing domestic violence or threats of violence,” said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Coogle said the organisation has worked with seven or eight similar cases. “The real number who attempt to escape is likely much higher,” he said.
In Hong Kong, the sisters still do not feel free. They move from safe house to safe house and go outside only when accompanied by people they trust. In some ways it is similar to their old life in Saudi Arabia where they were stuck at home, watching movies and television shows about life elsewhere.
One thing that is different is the opportunity to express themselves. “One of the freedoms we have is that we can speak loudly,” said Rawan. “We can speak freely about what we think, what we love, without fearing we could be punished by what we say,” Rawan said. Sometimes it feels strange, she admits.
What does not feel strange, Reem says, is no longer wearing an abaya. “The moment I took off the abaya, I didn’t feel strange. I felt normal,” she said.
“The first time I stepped into Hong Kong with my sister, I was amazed. I felt the air touch my face and hair and I breathed without the niqab. I walked without someone watching my steps and I talked to my sister without someone watching how loud my voice is,” she said.