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Saudi Sisters Hiding in Hong Kong Granted Asylum in 3rd Country

FILE - Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured at an office in Hong Kong, China, Feb. 23, 2019.

After six months hiding in Hong Kong, two sisters from Saudi Arabia have been granted asylum in an unknown third country, bringing their tumultuous time in legal limbo to an end.

Known to the media as "Reem and Rawan," the sisters left Hong Kong last week for new lives elsewhere, their lawyer Michael Vidler said Monday.He did not disclose the location of their asylum to protect their safety.

The sisters, aged 18 and 20, said they were elated at their "happy ending" after enduring "violence and oppression," in a statement released through Vidler.

"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," the pair said.

April 8 deadline

The announcement comes two weeks before an April 8 deadline set by immigration authorities for the sisters to leave Hong Kong or face legal prosecution.

Hong Kong has not signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which means Reem and Rawan were forced to apply for asylum elsewhere.

The sisters claim to have renounced Islam, according to Vidler, and could face the death penalty if they return home.

After fleeing a family vacation in Sri Lanka, the pair traveled to Hong Kong in September in an attempt to reach Australia, but Vidler says they were stopped at the airport by Saudi officials.

Legal limbo

They have been in legal limbo since November when Saudi authorities cancelled their passports while they were in hiding.

Hong Kong's immigration authorities initially granted the sisters permission to stay until February 28, which was later extended until April 8.

Vidler said despite the extension the sisters were "liable to prosecution and removal as overstayers," raising the stakes on their application for asylum.

Hong Kong's Immigration Department does not comment on individual cases.

Once a magnet for refugees from across Asia, Hong Kong's contemporary treatment of refugees is controversial.

There are around 10,000 asylum seekers living in Hong Kong, according to the refugee rights group Justice Center.Many spend years waiting for their claims to be processed before they can be resettled in a third country.

In this image made from a video, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, Saudi woman accepted as a refugee in Canada, is interviewed in Toronto, Jan. 14, 2019.
In this image made from a video, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, Saudi woman accepted as a refugee in Canada, is interviewed in Toronto, Jan. 14, 2019.

This is the second high profile case this year involving young women fleeing their families in Saudi Arabia.

In a case earlier this year, 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was stopped in Thailand while in route to Australia.

Alqunun arrived in Bangkok on January 5 on a flight from Kuwait after running away from her family.After initially being denied entry into Thailand, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and posted pictures and texts of herself on Twitter, drawing global attention to her plight.The attention prompted Thai immigration authorities to reverse their earlier decision to send her back to Saudi Arabia.

She was later granted asylum in Canada.