HONG KONG — The Saudi sisters made a daring plan to escape to Australia, fleeing what they described as an oppressive life, only to have their journey cut short at an airport in Hong Kong, their lawyer says.
The women, who are seeking asylum, have been in hiding since September, after they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Melbourne at the Hong Kong International Airport, the lawyer said on Friday.
The sisters’ odyssey, which they have chronicled on a Twitter account that their lawyer, Michael Vidler, confirmed belongs to them, appears to be the latest example of women from Saudi Arabia and other Middle East nations trying to leave restrictive societies.
The sisters, 18 and 20, have declined to publicly reveal their true identities — and have assumed the pseudonyms Reem and Rawan — out of fear that it would hurt them, Mr. Vidler said. If they returned home, he added, they could be severely punished.
“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,” he said.
The sisters have been in hiding, the lawyer said, moving 13 times.
“We dream of being in a safe place where we can be normal young women, free from violence and oppression,” the sisters said in a statement posted on Thursday night by Mr. Vidler’s law firm, which is based in Hong Kong.
Their appeal for asylum — the lawyer declined to say to which countries — emerged after the high-profile escapes of Rahaf, a Saudi teenager who has since been resettled in Canada, and Sheikha Latifa, a princess who was forcibly returned to Dubai.
The New York Times could not independently corroborate the sisters’ story. The Saudi Consulate in Hong Kong did not respond to a request for comment, and the Hong Kong Immigration Department said it would not comment on individual asylum cases.
According to the lawyer’s statement, the sisters had been on a family vacation in Sri Lanka and intended to fly to Melbourne, stopping in Hong Kong for a short layover. But when they landed in September, they found that their reservations had been wiped from the Melbourne leg of their journey.
In the statement, they described a harrowing day at the Hong Kong airport in which unknown men appeared at various points in an apparent attempt to intimidate them — trying to snatch their passports and to persuade them to fly to Saudi Arabia via Dubai instead to get their visas stamped before they could go to Australia.
One attempt to fly to Australia on a different airline was sabotaged, they said, by men who appeared menacingly at the boarding gate, and the sisters fled into the city as tourists.
They later matched the face of one of the men at the airport with an official photo from the Consulate General of Saudi Arabia, Mr. Vidler said by email. That man also appeared in close-circuit television footage reviewed by their legal team.
After the women’s family filed a missing-persons report for the sisters, the same man showed up at a Hong Kong police station days later with the sisters’ father and uncle, the statement said. The sisters were escorted from the police station after they refused to meet with their family, whom Mr. Vidler described as well connected.
The Hong Kong police would say only that an “expatriate man” had filed a missing-persons report and that “two expatriate women” had filed a separate report seeking a police investigation. An inquiry was underway.
In November, the sisters’ passports were canceled, they say. Under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws, women need permission from their male guardians to apply for a passport. Their movements can be tracked through registered identification, and their permission to travel can even be revoked using an app that was rolled out in 2015.
The United Nations does not officially recognize refugees in Hong Kong, and the odds of staying here legally are very low.
Only 0.8 percent of those who file for non-refoulement status — which under international law blocks the return of asylum seekers to nations where they would be in danger — are allowed to stay in the city without being forced to return to their home countries after they overstay tourist visas, according to the Justice Center Hong Kong, a migrant rights group.
The sisters say their stay in Hong Kong legally ends in six days.
In a video posted on Friday on Twitter, with both sisters’ heads out of the frame, one can be heard saying, “We want this desperately to be settled in a third country of safety before 28 February, when our time in Hong Kong expires.”