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Under the cover of darkness, the two Saudi sisters snuck out of their family’s holiday home in Sri Lanka and boarded a flight to escape the years-long abuse they endured back home. But instead of a new life, Rawan and Reem – who are using pseudonyms – found themselves stranded in Hong Kong, after Kingdom officials arrived at the airport and interrupted their transit to Australia.

The women entered the city and, over the past five months, have been quietly shuttled between 13 different safehouses. Yet they continue to fear for their personal safety in what is meant to be one of the world’s safest cities. Their lawyer Michael Vidler told HKFP that the pair have had their passports invalidated and could be forced to leave the territory as soon as next Thursday. “Since the sister’s passports were cancelled by the Saudi authorities, the Hong Kong government has ‘tolerated’ their continued presence in Hong Kong without a visa. This will end on February 28,” he said.

Reem and Rawan saudi sisters
Rawan and Reem. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The sisters say that, if they are sent back to Riyadh, they could face imprisonment or even a so-called “honour killing” at the hands of their conservative family for renouncing Islam and attempting to leave. In the Kingdom, apostasy is punishable by death.

‘It’s like slavery’

Women in Saudi Arabia live under the watchful eye of their male guardians who, within the law, oversee everything from where female dependents’ travel to who they marry. “It’s like slavery,” Rawan, 18, told HKFP in an interview on Friday. “We have to get permission from our male guardians to do everything.”

“Every detail of our lives was controlled by a male, even our clothes, we can’t choose what we want to wear. We can’t go out without anyone else with us, or without an abaya,” Reem, 20, added, referring to a long dress worn by some women in Muslim countries.

The women say they suffered physical abuse at home, and would have eventually been forced into marriage with their cousins – an orthodox practice – if they had remained.

Reem and Rawan saudi sisters
The sisters in Sri Lanka. Photo: Supplied.

The Kingdom’s ubiquitous control of women is now backed by technology. A controversial government-backed app called Absher enables Saudi men to monitor dependents’ whereabouts at all times. The sisters said their relatives were able to track them down and report them to Saudi officials in Hong Kong using the app, which rights groups recently urged Google and Apple to remove from their online stores.

But since arriving in the city, the women have not escaped the feeling of being watched. For security reasons, they have been moved between hotels, shelters and private residences over a dozen times, and spend most of their days indoors out of fear of venturing outside.

Their concerns are well-founded. The sisters said that after attempting to seek help at the French Consulate in Central shortly after their arrival, they spotted a man who “looked Arabic” waiting in a taxi queue. Later that day, they saw the same man waiting in their hotel lobby in North Point, staring at them. “He followed us,” Reem explained.

Reem and Rawan saudi sisters
Rawan and Reem. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In September, they received a Whatsapp message purporting to be from the local police, though they quickly realised it was fraudulent.

The Kingdom has a history of attempting to forcibly return women who leave. In January, a Saudi woman named Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun made international headlines when she barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room to prevent deportation. After a viral social media campaign, she was given refugee status and granted asylum in Canada.

But others are not as fortunate. In 2017, a Saudi woman named Dina Ali Lasloom was intercepted by her uncles at an airport in Manila on her way to seek asylum in Australia. She was subsequently sent back to the Kingdom and has not been heard from since.

It’s a story that the women are all too painfully familiar with. “I was aware of Dina Ali, but I thought ‘ok – I’m not going to a poor country. I’m going to Hong Kong, it’s strong, it’s two hours transit and then I can go to Australia,” Rawan said. “I thought it would only be a two-hour transit and now it’s almost six months in Hong Kong.”

Dina Ali Lasloom, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, and Jamal Khashoggi.
In the headlines: Dina Ali Lasloom, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, and Jamal Khashoggi.

Since their arrival, Rawan and Reem also became acutely aware of the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the authorities at Turkey’s Saudi embassy last October. Neither want to risk approaching the local consulate for their passports.

Clock ticking

According to their lawyer’s statement, the duo were approached by two men at Hong Kong International Airport as they transited for their onward flight to Australia. The men took their passports and cancelled their Cathay Pacific flight to Melbourne and, instead, booked them tickets for an Emirates flight to Riyadh. Australia reportedly cancelled the tourist visas the pair applied for online.

Cathay Pacific told HKFP it received cancellation instructions from Sri Lankan Airlines, who sold and issued the original tickets. Sri Lankan Airlines did not respond to a request for comment, but the airline told CNN it was following the instructions of the Saudi officials who claimed the women’s mother was gravely ill.

“When I realised we were stuck here, I panicked,” she added. “I’ve read that Hong Kong is not a really good place for refugees.”

Refugees make up just 0.2 per cent of Hong Kong’s population, according to NGO Justice Centre. Between 2014 and 2017, 52 or 0.7 per cent of asylum seeker claims were accepted on the grounds of “non-refoulement” or torture. The process for seeking asylum in the city can take several years and during that period, applicants are not allowed to work in the city and must depend upon NGO handouts and social welfare stipends. With the assistance of Vidler and Justice Centre, Rawan and Reem have sought to avoid a risky, years-long stay in Hong Kong by applying directly for refuge in a third country.

”Timeline: A daring escape, then caught in limbo – click to view.”

A timeline of events, according to the sister’s lawyer:

September 6 2018: Rawan and Reem board a flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Melbourne, Australia, only to become stranded in the transit city of Hong Kong.
September 7 2018: The sisters report their situation to the Hong Kong police and express concern for their personal safety.
September 9 2018: The women receive a Whatsapp message from the police, which they quickly understood to be fraudulent.
September 10 2018: After receiving a missing persons report, Hong Kong police take the women to meet their father, uncle and the Saudi consul-general at a police station. The women refuse to meet them.
November 13, 2018: Hong Kong Immigration tells the sisters their passports have been invalidated.
February 21, 2019: CNN reveals the women are still in Hong Kong seeking asylum in a third country.

A spokesperson for the Immigration Department told HKFP that they could not comment on individual cases: “The Immigration Department always exercises effective immigration control in accordance with the relevant laws and policies,” they added.

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When asked about the case, Secretary for Security John Lee told local media on Friday that the police were dealing with a missing person report and a request for an investigation. “[I]t would be inappropriate of me to comment on the details of the case,” he said. “But one principle is important, that all people in Hong Kong must comply with the laws of Hong Kong.”

With the patience of the local authorities set to expire within days, the sisters are eagerly hoping their asylum application will be quickly accepted by a third country. As Rawan explained: “We’ve heard people say that Hong Kong is safe – safe, but not for us.”

michael vidler
Michael Vidler. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

HKFP has contacted the Saudi Arabian consulate in Hong Kong for comment.

Additional reporting: Tom Grundy and Holmes Chan.

Correction 21.2: On September 10, 2018, police took the women to a police station to meet their family, not a hotel as previously stated.

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.