HONG KONG - Two Saudi sisters hiding in Hong Kong after fleeing what they say is certain retribution at home for renouncing Islam are now in political limbo after their permission to stay in the autonomous Chinese city expired on Thursday before they were granted political asylum.
Known to the media by their aliases “Rawan and Reem,” false names used to protect their identities, the sisters have been in Hong Kong for five months after they fled a family vacation in Sri Lanka.
The sisters, age 18 and 20, could face the death penalty for the crime of “apostasy” – or renouncing Islam – if they returned home, according to their lawyer Michael Vidler.
As Hong Kong has not signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, Rawan and Reem have applied for asylum in an unknown third country.
Saudi Arabia, however, canceled their passports in November and the women now face an uncertain future as “tolerated overstayers,” according to Vidler.
“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,” he said in a statement Thursday.
“We are hopeful this extension will be allowed and that their application for an emergency rescue visa be granted soon,” he also said.
Hong Kong’s Immigration Department told VOA it does not comment on individual cases.
The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong also did not reply to a request for comment.
?Taking their case to Twitter
In a statement released Thursday by Vidler, Rawan and Reem said they live in “fear every day in Hong Kong.” They also claim to have moved 13 times to avoid detection by Saudi authorities.
“We want to leave to a third country place of safety 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 said.
The women have spoken publicly of their case as well under the Twitter account #HKSaudiSisters, where they have amassed nearly 2,500 followers.
Rawan and Reem initially traveled to Hong Kong in September where they hoped to board a plane for Australia, but say they were intercepted at the airport by Saudi officials, including the consulate general, according to Vidler.
The officials attempted to persuade the sisters to return to Saudi Arabia, where they would also face a return to the country’s repressive laws governing the movement of women.
Amnesty International said this week that Hong Kong authorities had a “duty” to allow the sisters to remain and travel to a third country.
“Reem and Rawan must not be sent back to Saudi Arabia, this 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.
Less of a magnet for refugees
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 Centre. Many spend years waiting for their claims to be processed before they can be resettled in a third country.
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 Jan. 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.