Sisters fleeing Saudi Arabia granted an extension of stay in Hong Kong

Two sisters stranded in Hong Kong after escaping Saudi Arabia and their family have been allowed to stay in the city beyond Thursday’s deadline. In a statement, human rights lawyer Michael Vidler said Hong Kong’s Immigration Department acknowledged that the pair would be “allowed to continue to stay pending determination of their application to a third country place of safety”.

The Immigration Department approves application for extension but did not indicate a new expiry date, as human rights NGO Amnesty International urged the local government not to return pair to their country of origin as they will be “in grave danger”. Mr. Vidler said, “We are in communication [with the third country], but there hasn’t been any substantive development,” but would not comment on a “backup plan”, should the sisters’ bid fail.

The two sisters, who go by the pseudonyms Reem and Rawan and aged 18 and 20, said they had renounced their Muslim faith and were running from their family because they had been abused by their father and brothers. They arrived from Sri Lanka, where they had been on a family holiday, in Hong Kong in September and claimed to have escaped an alleged kidnap attempt orchestrated by diplomats from the Saudi consulate at Hong Kong International Airport, where they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia, their final destination. In November, their Saudi passports were revoked, forcing them to stay in Hong Kong. The sisters applied for an emergency rescue visa to an unnamed country in late December, but the applications are still being considered.

They had secretly saved around USD $5,000 since 2016, some of it accumulated by scrimping on items they were given money to buy. The timing of their escape was carefully planned to coincide with Rawan’s 18th birthday so she could apply for a visitor’s visa to Australia without her parents’ approval.

They managed to leave Hong Kong airport, but consular officials have since revoked their passports, leaving them stranded in the city for nearly six months, Mr. Vidler said. The sisters have moved 13 times in the past five months to evade capture. “We are in fear every day we are in Hong Kong. We want to leave [for] a third country place of safety as soon as possible,” the two wrote in a statement released by Mr. Vidler and his firm. “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.”

In an earlier interview with Reuters, the sisters said every decision had to be approved by the men in their house, from the clothes they wore to the hairstyle they chose - even the times when they woke and went to sleep, “They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” said the younger sister, Rawan, referring to two brothers aged 24 and 25 as well as her father. “It was basically modern day slavery. You can’t go out of the house unless someone is with us. Sometimes we will stay for months without even seeing the sun,” said the elder sister, Reem.

They said their 10-year-old brother was also encouraged to beat them. “They brainwashed him,” Rawan said, referring to her older brothers. Although he was only a child, she said she feared her younger brother would become like her older siblings. The family includes two other sisters, aged five and 12. Reem said she and her sister feel terrible about leaving them, although they “hope their family will get a lesson from this and it might help to change their lives for the better.”