#HKSaudiSisters not deported but still in limbo as deadline to leave Hong Kong passes

Saudi sisters Rawan (in yellow) and Reem stand in front of a view of the building which houses the Saudi consulate in Hong Kong. Photo via AFP.
Saudi sisters Rawan (in yellow) and Reem stand in front of a view of the building which houses the Saudi consulate in Hong Kong. Photo via AFP.

The fate of two Saudi sisters who found themselves stuck in Hong Kong after a thwarted bid to flee abuse at the hands of their family still hangs in the balance, as a deadline for them to leave the city came and went today without an official determination on their case from authorities.

In a statement today, the sisters’ lawyer, Michael Vidler, said authorities had acknowledged a request to allow the pair to remain as “tolerated overstayers” while seeking asylum in a third country, but implied that officials had yet to make a final decision.

“We have received acknowledgement today from the Hong Kong Immigration Department of our request for the sisters to be allowed to continue to stay pending determination of their application to a third country place of safety,” Vidler said in the statement. “We are hopeful this extension will be allowed and that their application for an emergency rescue visa be granted soon.”

Vidler confirmed in an email this evening that a final decision still had not been issued.

The sisters, whose passports were revoked by Saudi Arabia, were previously only permitted to stay in Hong Kong until the end of the day on Feb. 28, and with their asylum requests still in limbo, many feared they would be deported back to the repressive Gulf state.

In today’s statement, the sisters — who are going by the aliases Reem and Rawan — said that they were “in fear every day we are in Hong Kong,” and wanted to travel to a third country “as soon as possible.”

“We desperately hope that this will happen very soon and that the Hong Kong government will continue to allow us to stay here until then,” they were quoted as saying. “We thank the international community for the support we have received and ask you all to keep supporting us until we find a safe new home.”

Their case has grabbed international headlines and generated an outpouring of support on social media since it was first detailed in an exclusive CNN report last week.

As CNN first reported, the sisters — who are going by the aliases Reem and Rawan — used a family vacation to Sri Lanka in September as their opportunity to escape what they described as beatings at the hands of their father and brothers, and the prospect of a life completely controlled by the men around them. Both say they have renounced Islam, a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

In a statement today, Amnesty International called on Hong Kong authorities not to return the two to their home country.

“Reem and Rawan must not be sent back to Saudi Arabia – this would place them in grave danger,” Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s refugee researcher, was quoted as saying. “The Hong Kong authorities have a duty to allow Reem and Rawan to stay in Hong Kong or let them travel to a country where they would be safe and can seek asylum. The women’s lives are at risk if the Hong Kong authorities do not fulfil their responsibilities.”

Reem and Rawan, 20 and 18, respectively, had initially planned to seek asylum in Australia, securing tourist visas and tickets to Melbourne, via Hong Kong. What was initially meant to be a two-hour layover, however, has since stretched into a five-month ordeal.

Upon disembarking at Hong Kong International, the sisters were held up by two airport employees, and learned that their onward flight had been canceled at the “explicit request” of the Saudi consulate. Saudi consular officials soon arrived, taking their passports and trying to coerce them into returning to the Kingdom, even calling Australian immigration officials to have their visas canceled.

The sisters were able to get their passports back, and decided to take their chances in Hong Kong.

Once here, however, they became subject to a “false missing persons report, resulting in the Hong Kong police taking them from their hotel room to a police station where their father, uncle and the Saudi Consul General were waiting,” according to today’s statement. They refused to speak to the men, and their passports were invalidated shortly thereafter.

They have been on the move ever since, changing location within Hong Kong 13 times to avoid detection by Saudi officials, the statement said. They have also filed a police report of their own accusing Saudi consular officials of attempted kidnapping for their actions at the airport.

Police have said they are investigating the accusation.

Social media users, meanwhile, have taken up the sisters’ cause, with users urging foreign governments to grant them asylum.

The @HKsisters6 Twitter account feed of Rawan and Reem displayed on Reem's phone during a recent interview. Photo via AFP.
The @HKsisters6 Twitter account feed of Rawan and Reem displayed on Reem’s phone during a recent interview. Photo via AFP.

Reem and Rawan themselves have also taken to Twitter to urge the international community to intercede on their behalf, a move that echoed the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the 18-year-old Saudi woman who also fled family abuse and was ultimately granted asylum in Canada after a social media campaign mounted from Thailand.

“All what we asking for is to be safe, All what we asking for is to live at least one single day without fear, to sleep without nightmares, to have a home where we can live without being threat! We don’t want to be killed. Please save us,” reads one tweet from the sisters’ account.

This evening, they thanked the international community, and asked for continued support until they are resettled.

Their supporters on social media have also publicly lobbied foreign governments to step up and offer the pair asylum over the past few days.

As of this evening, more than 1,500 had signed a Change.org petition calling on Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and New Zealand to “save stateless Saudi sisters Reem (age 20) and Rawan (age 18) (aliases) who are currently in Hong Kong and urgently seeking a safe home in a third country.”

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