Saudi Arabia sisters face Hong Kong deportation deadline

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Two young women from Saudi Arabia are appealing for help after revealing they have spent six months in legal limbo in Hong Kong after fleeing their family.

Rawan and Reem (not their real names) say they escaped while on a family holiday in Sri Lanka in September.

They had been trying to get to Australia, but say they were intercepted in Hong Kong.

The case comes just weeks after another fleeing teenager was given asylum in Canada.

Rawan and Reem claim Saudi officials attempted to seize their travel documents in Hong Kong’s airport.

They say they then resisted boarding a flight to Dubai, only to find flights to Melbourne they had booked had been cancelled.

Their lawyer, Michael Vidler, says they have held the status of “tolerated overstayers” in Hong Kong since and were informed in November that their Saudi passports had been invalidated.

Under Saudi law, women have to get a male relative’s approval to apply for a passport or travel outside the country.

Fears for safety

The women, aged 18 and 20, say they do not want to return home because they fear punishment or even death on their return.

Speaking to the BBC’s Chinese service, the sisters said they had hatched a plot to flee because they had “no dignity” in their lives in Saudi Arabia.

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They allege they were beaten, humiliated and forced to do household chores by their male relatives.

“My life was just to serve them. I was very depressed, didn’t see any future,” Rawan said. “They don’t care about any of my needs or my education – their only focus was to raise me as a good wife.”

Their lawyer said Thursday 28 February was the deadline of a temporary visa given to them by Hong Kong authorities.

They are now waiting to hear if they have been granted an extension request, pending an application to a third country which would serve as a place of safety.

The sisters say they have lived in fear since arriving in Hong Kong, and believe they are still being pursued by the Saudi consulate and their family.

“We have moved 13 times to different places: hostels, hotels, shelters, individuals’ flats,” Rawan says. “We are afraid of going anywhere on our own. It is all about fear.”

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The women told the BBC they had renounced their religion and feared for their safety if they were forcibly returned. Under Saudi law, renouncing Islam is punishable by death.

Their case bears resemblance to that of Rahaf al-Qunun, 18, who also tried to escape to Australia earlier this year.

She ended up in a stand-off in an airport hotel room in the Thai capital Bangkok, where she appealed for international help. Eventually Ms al-Qunun was granted asylum in Canada.

She has since vowed to work for the freedom of other women around the world.

Like Ms al-Qunun, Reem and Rawan are also trying to use social media account to draw attention to their case.

The @HKsisters6 account has dozens of tweets pleading for help and resettlement.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International warned that Hong Kong sending the sisters back would place them in “grave danger”.

“They fled the kingdom after repeated abuse by male relatives and they are at real risk of serious human rights violations if they are forcibly returned,” Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s refugee researcher said in a statement.

Hopes for a new life

“Ultimately the sisters don’t want to be in fear of their family or the Saudi government for the rest of their lives,” their lawyer has said of their case.

Asked about their hopes for the future, the girls told the BBC they hoped to move to a country with more women’s rights and free speech.

Reem, 20, had been studying English literature before escaping, and says she wants to go on to write about their lives in Saudi Arabia.

“I dream of completing my studies, I am really passionate about my studies,” Rawan, 18, says. “I want to study biology and have a PhD in genetics.”

The sisters said the cases of other women who tried to flee had inspired them.

They cited the case of Dina Ali Lasloom, who was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia from Manila in 2017.

“We weren’t an easy target. We know our rights,” Reem said. “They are the ones who did the wrong thing, not us. We just want to survive.”

Saudi authorities have not yet commented on Rawan and Reem’s case publicly.

Mr Vidler said on Thursday that Hong Kong’s immigration department had acknowledged their request to continue to stay, but had not commented further.

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