‘I’ll be killed back home’: Home Affairs rejects Yemeni woman’s asylum application

Despite threats on her life, SA's Home Affairs department has given Yemeni woman Khadija Nasser till Friday to leave the country.

A Yemeni asylum seeker has until Friday to return home, after she was declined an asylum seeker permit by home affairs department, despite the fact that she faces a possible death sentence and has been on the run from her home as a result of death threats against her feminist activism.

Khadija Nasser, 28, says she has been publicly receiving death threats on social media for fleeing Saudi Arabia and her criticism of the country’s strict interpretation of Sharia law – an Islamic legal system which maintains a tight leash on women and their rights.

The department’s decision to deport her is not only placing her life at risk, but might even be unconstitutional, as the courts have already ruled that deporting someone to a country where they face possible death or persecution based on religion, ethnicity, or sexuality/gender.

Also Read: Home Affairs must know the law – court

Cook, clean, serve men, and nothing more

Born of Yemeni parents in Saudi Arabia, she said life in her home country was extremely “patriarchal” and “conservative”, and prohibited the education, employment and empowerment of women.

Communicating in Arabic via a translator, Nasser said she had been restricted from furthering her education due to her gender.

“The females have no right to make any decision or to go out. Their job for women is to be at home, cook and serve men and nothing more than that. Even if I study, and my family allows me to get a bachelor’s degree or a masters, once I get married, I don’t have a right to work and my right is to serve a husband,” she explained.


South Africa a country of hope

Sharia is the guiding religious legal system in many Islamic countries, but in Saudi Arabia its interpretation is notoriously strict. Verses of the Koran are interpreted to hold men superior to women, ensuring women are obedient and going as far as condoning corporal punishment for women who disobey male relatives.

The country ranks 147th out of 156 countries in terms of gender equality according to the Global Gender Gap Index, with Nasser’s family’s native Yemen ranking second last at 155. Only Afghanistan ranks lower.

But as a young girl, Nasser wanted a life of freedom and had hopes of one day being a lawyer. However, that changed when her family refused to allow her to pursue her studies.

“They believed an educated woman was of no benefit because at the end of the day, she will be in the kitchen and not at work.”

While plotting a plan to escape the “enslavement” and restrictive laws, Nasser saved money for four years. In 2019, she used her father’s phone to apply for an electronic passport and soon booked her flight to South Africa.

“I heard about South Africa and that the country respects the freedom of everyone so I chose South Africa to run away to.”

Once she landed in what she believed to be the land of the free in September that year, she finally removed her hijab (the Islamic scarf, which is compulsory for women to wear in public in Saudi Arabia) for the first time since she was four-years old.

Khadija Nasser in her niqab in Saudi Arabia. PICTURE: Supplied

Death threats

Fearing she would be followed, Nasser had told her family she was going to Egypt.

“They tried to send one of my brothers to Egypt to get me and possibly kill me. They didn’t know at the time that I was in South Africa.”

While concealing her location from those back home for the first year, Nasser eventually opened a Twitter account to assist, encourage, and advise women in Islamic states on ways to get out of similar situations as hers. This led to her receiving numerous death threats from Twitter accounts.

“I heard that there are some guys who want to come to South Africa and help to catch me to return me to Saudi Arabia or Yemen, or to kill me in South Africa.”


Asylum application rejected

Two years after applying for an asylum seeker permit in 2019, Nasser received the devastating news that her application had been rejected.

In a letter addressed to her on 13 August 2021 by the Desmond Tutu refugee reception office in Pretoria, Nasser was informed that her application was “manifestly unfounded”. Since then, her Twitter followers have called on human rights specialists and the South African government to assist and started the hashtag #save_khadija.

A defeated Nasser now has until Friday to leave the country or face deportation.

Despite this, she is still waiting for the department to return her passport, which means she is unable to find another sanctuary which will accept her.

“But my passport is with Home Affairs. I told them I need my passport but they told me they can’t seem to find it. They told me to get a new one at the embassy, but the embassy won’t help me because I am a feminist who broke all the rules.”

“My lawyer is trying to get me more days here so I can apply to another country.”

ALSO READ: Home Affairs spent over R40m on flights to deport illegal immigrants

Do not deport asylum seekers back to death – says Constitution

The Constitutional Court has confirmed its stance on the deportation of citizen who face the death penalty or persecution back home.

In 2012, the court ruled that Botswana citizens Jerry Phale and Emmanuel Tsebe would not be extradited back to their home country without prior assurance that the death penalty would not be applied, as this sanction was prohibited by the South African Constitution.

The North Gauteng High court has previously slammed the department for its failure apply the law, and its ignorance of the precedent set by the above-mentioned ruling.

ALSO READ: Refugee wants ConCourt to intervene in his pending deportation

In terms of South Africa’s obligations to international and local legislation, the test that one who faces prosecution based on gender, race or sexuality cannot be sent back to the country of prosecution has been well-founded, said constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos.

He said it was likely home affairs officials who decided on Nasser’s application dismissed her well-founded fear for questionable reasons.

“The problem here is that the department officials are probably not recognising the risk as an actual risk. There is a huge problem with this generally… People who apply for asylum are required to provide quite extraordinary proof before officials believe they are fearful they will be prosecuted.”

“Such person would have to challenge the decision and show that the officials completely got it wrong. The same thing happens with people who flee their country because of their sexual orientation,” said De Vos.

The home affairs department had not yet responded to request for comment. “We have received both of your emails and we’ll get back to you,” said spokesperson Siya Qoza.


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