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The first few months of 2019 have seen a spike in the number of girls fleeing abusive families and restrictive laws in Saudi Arabia. However, the kingdom is no stranger to a disappearing population: women, human rights activists and those seeking a life free from political, religious and moral persecution regularly leave the country.
The number of ,Saudi asylum seekers tripled between 2012 and 2017, according to the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR). Girls constitute 96 per cent of those fleeing the country. The study, conducted in the Mecca area, shows that the reasons given for running away were: misuse of social media, bad friends, misunderstanding of freedom, copying other cultures, weak beliefs, lack of emotional security, a need for adventure, bad treatment by a spouse, lack of communication with family members, verbal abuse, poverty, no monitoring by parents and violence from a parent or male sibling.
The recent case of 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun reignited the debate on rights and freedoms in the kingdom, following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Al-Qunun caught the world’s attention when she barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room in January 2019. She had arrived at the Thai capital’s main airport on a flight from Kuwait after running away from her family, whom she says subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
She had planned to seek asylum in Australia, fearing she would be killed if repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her at the airport. Her urgent pleas for help over Twitter from her hotel room garnered tens of thousands of followers and the support of the UNHCR, which helped her gain asylum in Canada.
Her successful attempt is a stark contrast to Dina Ali Lasloom’s, who was stopped in 2017 en route to Australia, where she planned to seek asylum. Forced to return to Saudi Arabia, she has not been heard from again, according to activists tracking her whereabouts.
In October 2018, the bodies of two young Saudi sisters washed up on the waterfront in New York City. Tala Farea, 16, and Rotana Farea, 23, had run away from home in Fairfax, Virginia before being placed in a shelter amid allegations they were abused at home. They then made their way to New York City, staying in high-end hotels and eventually maxing out the older sister’s credit card. New York City Police Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said people who knew the sisters in Virginia told investigators that they made statements within the last year indicating “that they would rather inflict harm on themselves – commit suicide – than return to Saudi Arabia”.
Women in Saudi Arabia are subject to the male guardianship system, which gives a woman’s father, brother, husband or son the authority to make critical decisions on her behalf. For example, a Saudi woman is required to obtain a male relative’s approval to apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship, get married, leave prison or even exit a shelter for victims of abuse.
“On top of that, there is a lot of domestic violence,” Khalid Ibrahim, co-director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights, told Fanack. “Girls can be beaten up for silly reasons, like not preparing their brother’s breakfast, for example, and forced to marry men they sometimes hate or don’t even know! Some families give their girls a little bit more freedom, but between the legal system and the terror at home, no wonder they want to flee. They also have good access to social media and see how women elsewhere lead their lives, how they are free to choose who they love. It’s tempting to get that as well. Meanwhile, the situation often leads them to depression and suicidal thoughts. Some die, some accept their fate, others escape.”
According to Ibrahim, the recent rise in the number of runaway girls also has to do with increasing persecution of human and women’s rights activists since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS) became the kingdom’s de facto leader in June 2017. MBS wants to appear as a modern monarch supportive of reform, for example lifting the ban on women driving in June 2018. In reality, there has been a clampdown on rights activists and critics of the regime.
Between May and September 2018, women’s rights activists, including those who had been vocal about lifting the driving ban, ended up in jail accused of a number of offences, including ‘suspicious contacts with foreign entities’ and ‘offering financial support to enemies overseas’. Other rights activists, lawyers and scholars suffered a similar fate and face years in prison.
This, coupled with the assassination of critical Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey on 2 October 2018, allegedly on MBS’ order, suggests more freedoms and rights in Saudi Arabia are, if anything, getting further away.
“I’m not surprised about this increase in runaways,” Ina Tin, senior political adviser for Amnesty International, told Fanack. “Even if reforms are taking place for social change, there is a rise of persecution against everyone who dares to speak up. There is a very visible paradox between relaxation [of the rules] in some regards and a rise of persecution. My reading is that MBS is really afraid of any sign of opposition, so he persecutes anyone asking for freedom. It’s more targeted towards women’s activism right now because this is the most vocal issue, and he is afraid other groups, like men wanting general political rights for example, would follow their lead. It’s creating a climate of fear that extends beyond the country, as I’m in contact with Saudi human rights activists in exile who fear for their own safety as well as their family’s, especially the relatives who stayed [in the country].”
Saudi Arabia’s response to runaways is to send its intelligence services to find them and bring them home, where they risk jail, torture or disappearance, which could mean death.
“Saudi authorities know there is a chronic problem and that without respecting public freedoms there will be no creativity or prosperous future for people,” Ibrahim told Fanack. “But instead of adopting the much-needed reforms, they are putting behind the bars every peaceful voice, such as the women leaders of the Driving Campaign, which shows you the brutal reaction of authorities to the need for reforms in society.”
Unless Saudi Arabia can find a way to deal with what it perceives as dissidence, it will likely see a continuing rise in the number of people attempting to flee. How the country plans to develop when its population keeps disappearing is a mystery it has yet to solve.