(Sanaa) – Yemeni authorities should not return a Saudi woman to her country without considering her claim that the Saudi government will not protect her against life-threatening family violence. The government should halt any deportation order against her and allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to interview her in detention to review her asylum claim.
Huda al-Niran, 22, fled from Saudi Arabia to Yemen with a Yemeni man her family refused to let her marry, so that they could marry in Yemen, her lawyer, Abdulraqib al-Qadi, told Human Rights Watch. She fears physical harm from her family members, whom she said have beaten her in the past, if she is returned to Saudi Arabia. Several Yemeni government sources told Human Rights Watch that the Saudi government is exerting political pressure on Yemen to return her.
“With a woman’s safety at stake, the Yemeni authorities should allow UNHCR to interview her,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Many Saudi women have a very real fear of violence and worse if they marry a man who isn’t their family’s choice.”
On October 3, 2013, Yemeni authorities arrested al-Niran and Arafat Radfan, her Yemeni partner, at the al-Twal border and took them to the Immigration Authority in Sanaa, after her family reported that she had been abducted by three Yemeni men, according to Al Masdar Online, a Yemeni media outlet. Radfan was transferred to a detention center in Sanaa, pending his trial for assisting al-Niran’s illegal entry into Yemen. Prosecutors also charged al-Niran with illegal entry, and have sought deportation orders from Sanaa’s Southwest Court, which has held at least four hearings to review the motions.
On October 21, the Human Rights Ministry forwarded al-Niran’s letter seeking asylum to UNHCR in Sanaa, asking it to assist al-Niran in processing her asylum claim. The Human Rights Ministry said that it believed sending her back to Saudi Arabia would put her life at risk.
On October 29, though, the Human Rights Ministry sent a letter to the Interior Ministry saying that the Immigration Authority had prevented UNHCR from interviewing al-Niran. The Human Rights Ministry sought the interior minister’s assistance in allowing an interview to determine her asylum status. The Interior Ministry had not given the agency permission.
Yemen became a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol in 1980. The Refugee Convention prohibits the return of any refugee to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened. A refugee is someone who has left their country and has a well-founded fear of being persecuted, including on the basis of membership in a particular social group. UNHCR’s governing Executive Committee formally concluded in 1985 that countries may interpret “social group” to include women who face harsh or inhuman treatment for having transgressed their society’s norms.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is considered reflective of customary international law, states in article 14 that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution.
Under Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, the government effectively treats women as permanent legal minors and prevents them from, for example, obtaining passports, traveling abroad, or choosing whom to marry without consent of a legal male guardian.
Women in Saudi Arabia who defy strict codes of morality or guardianship rules have in some cases faced violence from male family members, which have ranged from beatings and torture to murder. Both men and women can also face criminal cases for “parental disobedience.” A new law criminalizing domestic abuse recently passed by the Saudi Arabian authorities does not detail specific enforcement mechanisms to ensure prompt investigations of abuse allegations or prosecution of those who commit abuses.