Middle East

UN helps eloped Saudi 'Juliet' asylum case

A screen grab of a Facebook campaign supporting Huda and Arafat

A Saudi woman who eloped to Yemen to be with her Yemeni lover has been given UN protection as she seeks asylum.

UNHCR officials in Yemen told the BBC Huda's application was likely to be approved on the grounds that she could face mistreatment, even death, at the hands of her family if returned home.

In Yemen, it is being celebrated as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story.

Huda crossed the border several weeks ago, followed by her boyfriend, Arafat, who was working in Saudi Arabia.

Huda - who is in her early 20s - says she decided they had to elope after Arafat's marriage proposal was rejected by her family.

The two have been held in an immigration detention centre in Yemen since their arrival.

Huda is charged with illegally crossing the border.

The same charge against Arafat was dropped, but he refused to be freed, wanting to remain with her in prison.

The two get to meet once a week when Huda's asylum case is heard in court.

At first, her application to do this through the UNHCR was rejected by the ministry of the interior.

But UNHCR officials in Yemen say the judge allowed her request last week.

After the latest hearing in her case, the UNHCR was allowed to talk to her in the court building.

She then filled in a form known as the Refugee Status Determination. While this is being studied, she is under UN protection and cannot be deported.

Dominant role

The UNHCR officials have told the BBC that it is very likely that she will be granted full refugee status in the next few days, which would mean that Huda and Arafat would be freed and able to marry.

The officials say that the Yemeni government is legally bound to honour this, but it is still likely to come under pressure from Saudi Arabia to deport her.

The relationship between the two neighbours is fraught, with the wealth and size of Saudi Arabia allowing it to dominate its far poorer neighbour.

Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis work in Saudi Arabia but many have had to leave recently as the Saudis mount one of their biggest campaigns to reduce their dependence on foreign labour.

The friction that inevitably arises from such a close and dependent relationship has led many Yemenis to embrace the saga of Huda and Arafat not just as a love story but as a way of cocking a snook at the Saudis.

For its part, the UNHCR says that if Yemen does, for whatever reason, bow to Saudi pressure over the case and try to have Huda deported, it has an alternative plan that could see the two lovers united in another country.

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