Australian Border Force officers have been accused of targeting vulnerable Saudi Arabian women travelling to our shores and seeking asylum, according to an exclusive investigation.
ABC’s Four Corners program will on Monday present interviews with witnesses and activists who claim border security are blocking women from entering the country, targeting those whom they suspect will apply for asylum when they arrive at Australian airports.
According to the investigation, journalist Sophie McNeill reveals how Australia has become a hotspot for women attempting to escape the oppressive Saudi regime.
But even those who are lucky enough to make it out of their country face the challenge of seeking asylum in Australia.
The report suggests at least 80 Saudi women have sought asylum in Australia in recent years, however, there is evidence of at least two young women who arrived at Sydney Airport in the past two years but were turned back after making their asylum claims clear to Australian officials.
According to Four Corners, “Saudi women who arrive alone at Australian airports are being questioned as to why they are travelling without a male guardian.”
The investigation comes off the back of Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who captured international attention when she pleaded on social media to hear her case for asylum.
The 18-year-old renounced Islam and locked herself in a Bangkok hotel after she was stopped by Thai immigration on her way to Australia. She said she feared she would be killed if she was returned to her “abusive” family in Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with SBS, Ms al-Qunun said her plea was taking “too long” to be taken seriously by the Australian government. Instead, she was offered asylum in Canada by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
When asked why the government was dragging its feet on the woman’s application, Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan claimed it had only “been 48 hours” since she had begged to come to Australia and the government was simply “following due process”.
“We have always said we have got to follow due process. And we moved quickly and followed due process,” Mr Tehan said this morning.
“That is what Australians would expect us to do. But we have said: ‘Yes, we will look at this, we will move quickly.’
Speaking to Four Corner, Ms al-Qunun said she had been warned about the questions to expect from Australian Border Force officials upon arrival to Sydney.
“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.”
Dr Taleb Al Abdulmohsen, a Saudi political activist living in Germany, told the investigation that interrogation for loan travelling women had been increased since mid-2017.
“They started to meticulously interrogate girls at the Australian airport at least since August 2017. It is getting worse,” he said.
“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.”
Earlier this month, an Insider investigation found Saudi Arabia’s government had introduced a massive online database of women that men can use to track them to stop them running away.
The digitalised system comes complete with a handy app which essentially allows Saudi men to ruthlessly manage and control the lives of their wives and daughters at the touch of button.
This means escape for many proves futile.
And according to sources in the country, many of those caught trying to flee from their families or spouses are allegedly never seen again.
Called Absher, the database contains a log of women in Saudi Arabia and is capable of banning them from travelling and catching if them if they try.
With a few clicks a man can bar their errant woman from passing through airports, seaports and land borders.
An automatic SMS feature can be enabled which texts them when a woman uses her passport.
An Australian Border Force spokesperson told news.com.au, “The Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Border Force (ABF) play an important role in ensuring all travellers enter Australia through appropriate channels. This activity is not limited to any nationality, race, gender or religion.
“Airline Liaison Officers (ALOs) do not make decisions on visas or assess protection claims, nor do they have any part in facilitating travel from a host country to an individual’s home country. They provide on-the-spot advice to airlines and local border officials on passengers and whether they meet Australia’s entry requirements.
“ALOs are trained to identify individuals attempting to travel to Australia using fraudulent identity and travel documents, and those who are not travelling on the correct visa. In recent years, they have prevented hundreds of travellers of concern and non-genuine visa holders from boarding flights to Australia.
“Under international guidelines, if a traveller overseas makes a claim for protection offshore, ALOs would direct these persons to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to the appropriate diplomatic mission(s), or to an appropriate local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO).
“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.
“Australia is one of only a few countries in the world that specifically supports the resettlement of women at risk of victimisation, harassment or serious abuse because of their gender. Australia has a dedicated program for this purpose, the Woman at Risk program.
“More than 20,500 visas have been granted since the establishment of the Woman at Risk visa in 1989, and in 2017-18, the highest number of women and dependents were granted a Woman at Risk visa in our history (2,126 people in total).
“In 2018-19, at least 15 per cent of places have been set aside for the Woman at Risk program, up from a 10 per cent target last year,” the spokesperson said.
Escape from Saudi, reported by Sophie McNeill and presented by Sarah Ferguson, goes to air on Monday 4th February at 8.30pm on the ABC.