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Is Australia targeting Saudi women fleeing oppression?

Lars Hagberg, AFP | Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (C) is welcomed by Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (R) as she arrives at Pearson International airport in Toronto on January 12, 2019.

An investigation by Australian journalists found that authorities in that country are blocking Saudi women suspected of wanting to seek asylum from entering the country.

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An Australian television programme is contending that Australian border forces have been targeting women they suspect are fleeing Saudi Arabia and blocking them from entering the country and applying for asylum. The Australian investigative television show Four Corners unearthed evidence of at least two young Saudi women being sent home after arriving at Sydney Airport and indicating they planned to file asylum claims.

Four Corners also found that Australian authorities ask Saudi women who arrive alone why they are traveling without a male guardian, and ask for their guardians’ phone numbers.

Despite recent reforms in the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia maintains a severe system of male guardianship that requires women to have a male relative   a father, uncle, husband, brother or even a son   serve as their guardian and make critical decisions on their behalf. Women are prohibited from applying for passports or travelling abroad without permission from their male guardian.

“This system strangles women …and considers them as minors in society,” Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a women’s rights activist and MENA region consultant for Equality Now, told FRANCE 24.

Many things considered normal for women even in other parts of the Arab world, such as baring skin, wearing too much makeup or swimming in public are considered moral crimes that can land one in jail. Women also become the targets of honour killings at the hands of their families.

Four Corners spoke to several Saudi women who managed to flee to Australia. All of them are still waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. But even in Australia the women don’t feel safe because they are regularly harassed by Saudi men trying to persuade them to return home. Four Corners confirmed that at least one of the men involved in the harassment works for the Saudi Ministry of the Interior.

At least 80 women sought asylum in Australia in recent years, according to the Four Corners report. According to World Bank data, 1,169 Saudis left the country as refugees in 2017. That same year Australia resettled 15,100 refugees, according to UNHCR. In 2015-2016, the numbers of refugees originating from Iraq and Syria eclipsed those from other countries, according to Settlement Services International. Saudi Arabia was not in the top 10.

Denied entry

One of the Saudi women interviewed on the TV show said that, in 2017, she went to the Sydney airport to meet a friend who had fled Saudi Arabia via Indonesia and was planning to ask for asylum in Australia. She never emerged from airport arrivals, and her friends in Australia haven’t heard from her since.

The programme also detailed the case of a woman who landed at the Sydney airport in November, 2017. She was interrogated, detained for three days without access to a lawyer and then forcibly deported, according to Taleb Al Abdulmohsen, a Saudi psychiatrist and activist based in Germany who spoke to FRANCE 24 and was interviewed on the show. 

"They started to meticulously interrogate girls at the Australian airport at least since August 2017. It is getting worse," Abdulmohsen said on the program. "They ask the Saudi woman if her male guardian allowed her to travel. They ask for his phone number to call him. They also ask her to give them her cell phone and read her SMS, WhatsApp and other chat messages and emails, searching for signs of asylum intent, and they meticulously search the luggage to find any signs of asylum intent such as school certificates."

A woman denied entry to Australia still has the right to apply for asylum, but the process becomes very different. “They take you to a detention centre, and the treatment is very harsh,” Abdulmohsen told FRANCE 24. For an asylum seeker, a detention centre in Australia is “the worst place you can be in all developed countries".

Many women do not get as far as Australia. Four Corners also told the stories of two Saudi sisters who were planning on traveling to Sydney from Hong Kong last September. The young women had valid Australian visas but Saudi officials stopped them at the Hong Kong airport, took their passports and asked Australian consular officials to cancel their visas. The officials complied. The sisters have spent the last four months in hiding in Hong Kong.

Escape

Just getting out of Saudi is an ordeal.

“There's really two methods for doing this,” Adam Coogle, a Middle East Researcher for Human Rights Watch told the program. “One is they hack into their father's phone and change the permission settings for their travel … and run to the airport… The other method is if the family takes a vacation, they flee and abscond while outside the country.”

The Four Corners investigation began in January when Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi teenager, ran away during a family vacation in Kuwait. She intended to go to Australia, but was detained in Bangkok. Thai authorities initially said they would deport her, but she barricaded herself in her room at the airport transit hotel and quickly opened a Twitter account, sending the #SaveRahaf hashtag global.

At the time, Qunun had a valid Australian tourist visa. Her plan was to spend a few days in Bangkok before she continued on to Melbourne, where she would apply for asylum. As soon as she landed in Bangkok, she told Four Corners, a man approached her saying he was there to help her get a visa for Thailand. That was a lie; the truth was her family had reported her missing and he worked for the Saudi embassy. He took her passport.

As soon as she heard about the case, Australian journalist Sophie McNeill flew to Bangkok, snuck past the guards outside Qunun’s room and barricaded herself inside with the young Saudi woman. Qunun said she would not leave the room until she spoke to a representative from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Eventually UNHCR gave her refugee status. The Australian government said they would review her case but it would take time. Canada granted her status within a matter of hours of her request. A week later she arrived there.

Qunun told Four Corners she had been warned about border agents in Australia. "I heard that they investigate women, especially Saudi women and ask them where their guardian is," she said. "So, my plan was to tell them that my father knew about this and he has allowed me to travel."

Where is Dina?

The outcome for girls leaving Saudi Arabia isn’t always as rosy as it was for Qunun.

In April, 2017, 24-year-old Dina Ali Lasloom was stopped in the Philippines on her way to Australia and had her passport confiscated.

Lasloom’s story also went viral after a stranger she befriended in the airport filmed a video of her saying she would be killed if she returned home and posted it on social media. But the intervention was to no avail. Men who were said to be her uncles showed up in the airport, duct taped her mouth shut, taped her arms and legs together, and forced the screaming young woman onto a plane. Activists heard reports she was being held in a shelter for women, which effectively serve as prisons, but she hasn’t been heard from and her exact situation is unknown.

What is sure is that women who are returned to the Kingdom face bleak futures. “They will be living in hell,” Abu-Dayyeh told FRANCE 24. “If they are not killed they will be locked in home, they will be imprisoned at home.”

The Australian Border Force issued a statement after the broadcast, without addressing any of the specific allegations in the piece. “Any traveller who seeks to engage Australia’s protection obligations are subject to a process that confirms their circumstances and whether their reasons for seeking to enter Australia require further consideration against Australia’s non-refoulement obligations, or whether they can be removed to their home country or place of departure, consistent with Australia’s international obligations,” the statement read in part.

Read also: Saudi teen's asylum in Canada seen as win-win for Trudeau

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