The Case of The Saudi Sisters: Hong Kong’s lack of refugee regs

Two Saudi women have been hiding in Hong Kong for six months while fearing deportation to their homeland. They are trying to escape what they describe as living like prisoners back home. Unfortunately, the two sisters are only allowed to stay in Hong Kong legally until Thursday, February 28 – today.

The case has shone a bright spotlight on how Hong Kong treats refugees and asylum seekers.

The two sisters, whose pseudonyms are Rawan and Reem, snuck away from their family during a vacation in Sri Lanka in September 2018. Their goal was to fly to Australia via Hong Kong. Instead, Saudi diplomats intercepted them at the Hong Kong airport. They fled into the city as tourists and have been stranded here since.

“Since September 2018, the sisters have changed location 13 times, fearing for their safety,” says Vidler & Co. Solicitors, the law firm representing the sisters. “They cannot go back to Saudi Arabia as they have renounced their belief in Islam and would be considered to be apostate by the Saudi government – something that carries the death penalty.”

Saudi authorities have reportedly cancelled the sisters’ passports. The Hong Kong government allowed them to stay in Hong Kong without a visa, but this temporary stay ends on Thursday.

Hong Kong’s security minister Mr John Lee said on Feb. 22 that “police have received two separate reports, one regarding missing persons and one regarding request for investigation”. He did not elaborate.

The sisters’ lawyer, Mr Michael Vidler, said they had filed an application for an emergency visa to a third country.

This follows another high-profile case of Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room to prevent deportation.

Saudi Arabia has a history of forcing women to return to the country. Earlier, the government launched a controversial mobile app for male guardians to track women.

“We fled our home to ensure our safety. We hope that we can be given asylum in a country which recognizes women’s rights and treats them as equals,” say Reem and Rawan. They said they had been subject to domestic violence.

Hong Kong’s refugee record

The sisters’ case also highlights the unfriendly policy of Hong Kong towards asylum seekers. The sisters could fall under that category if they are unable to go to a third country.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, anyone who fears being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion back in their home country could be a refugee.

Currently, the Convention does not extend to Hong Kong, which is not a signatory. The city has no legal framework to govern the granting of asylum. Asylum seekers can only stay in Hong Kong to wait for their refugee status in a third country.

“The Saudi sisters will have to wait until they overstay in Hong Kong in order to seek a torture/non-refoulement claim. If their case gets rejected, they have one chance to appeal,” says Mr Timothy Chan, a pastor at Kowloon Union Church that offers support to asylum seekers.

Waiting time: 3 to 10 years

“The waiting time for claims screening normally takes three to ten years,” he says, adding that there are 14,000 people seeking protection in Hong Kong, but only 170 of them have been granted such protection in the past.

“The acceptance rate for asylum seekers is extremely low,” he says.

Local group Branches of Hope says Hong Kong’s acceptance rate stands at 0.6 percent, compared with Europe’s 60 percent and the global average rate of 43 percent.

In March 2014, the Hong Kong government introduced the Unified Screening Mechanism to bring refugee claims together with other claims of abuse under one process. The cases are handled by the Immigration Department.

Once the asylum seekers are granted non-refoulement protection, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will determine if they are recognised as refugees to help them resettle in a third country.

Asylum seekers whose claims are being reviewed by the Hong Kong government are not allowed to work during this period, and very often, their claims get rejected for unknown reasons.

“We have been calling for transparency in the claims screening process to know the reason for rejection and increasing the acceptance rate,” Mr Chan says.

His church says there is very little government help for asylum seekers and they face financial hardship in Hong Kong. They are only given $1,500 as housing allowance and $1,200 in food vouchers every month.

The Hong Kong government also gives educational support only for refugee children six years old and above, leaving infants with no preparation of early childhood education.