Two Saudi sisters who became stranded in Hong Kong whilst fleeing abuse back home have officially been granted asylum in a third country. The pair left last Thursday for the country of asylum which, for their protection, has not been disclosed.

“After six months of hiding in Hong Kong from Saudi authorities and their family, these strong, brave and determined young women have finally been able to secure humanitarian visas to a third country place of safety,” their lawyer Michael Vidler said on Monday evening.

Rawan and Reem. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“They are now in that third country, beginning their lives as free young women, looking forward to assimilating into the local culture, contributing to their new home country and leading lives as equal human beings,” he added.

Rawan and Reem, who are using pseudonyms, told HKFP last month that they would risk further domestic abuse, legal action or even a so-called “honour killing” at the hands of their relatives for renouncing Islam if they were deported back to the Kingdom. The pair, aged 18 and 20, fled a family holiday in Sri Lanka and boarded a flight to Australia last September but became stranded in Hong Kong after an apparent intervention by the Saudi consulate. Over the past six months, the sisters were shuttled between 14 different safehouses – including hotels, hostels, shelters, and private dwellings – out of concerns they may be followed by Saudi agents.

The sisters previously had their stay extended by Hong Kong immigration authorities until April 8 but were liable to prosecution and removal as overstayers.

File photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Rawan and Reem said in a statement that they look forward to re-starting their lives: “We wish for our story to offer hope to others who face similar situations. We want to say loud and clear to the Saudi authorities and other regimes which treat women unequally: never underestimate the strength of brave women.”

Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at NGO Amnesty International, said on Monday that the sisters must be allowed to build their lives without living in fear, adding: “No woman or girl should fear for their life like Reem and Rawan did. Saudi Arabia must urgently reform the guardianship system and end the whole range of discriminatory laws and practices women face.”

Solicitor questioned at airport

Vidler told HKFP that he was questioned by airport authorities for an hour after he accompanied his clients to the gate last week.

He said he had been denied an emergency visitor’s pass by the Airport Authority, so had purchased a flight ticket instead. He said that, in light of last year’s incident, he had to assist his clients through immigration to ensure their rights were protected until boarding.

Saudi sisters Rawan (in yellow), 18, and Reem, 20, (both using adopted aliases) stand next to each other during an interview with AFP in Hong Kong on February 22, 2019. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

“The request for passes was denied as it [did] not match any of the criteria under which passes may be issued,” a spokesperson for the Airport Authority Hong Kong told HKFP.

See also: Stranded Saudi sisters fear for their safety in Hong Kong, as clock ticks on hopes for asylum

They said that, in contrast to Vidler, Saudi officials were granted emergency airport permits last year to “facilitate members of consular posts to perform consular functions.”

Vidler said he was questioned over why he did not take his scheduled flight and wanted to reenter the city.

Additional Reporting: Tom Grundy.

Jennifer Creery

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.