′Snowden refugees′ in Hong Kong dream of safety in Canada | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 17.09.2019
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'Snowden refugees' in Hong Kong dream of safety in Canada

As Edward Snowden releases his memoir, refugees who sheltered him in Hong Kong in 2013 are still stuck in limbo. Now facing deportation, they hope Canada will offer them protection.

In a tiny one bedroom apartment in downtown Hong Kong, 7-year-old Sethumdi and her 3-year-old brother Dinath are playing hide-and-seek under the bedcovers.

Sethumdi was just a baby, and Dinath was not yet born, when their parents' home became a hiding place for former US intelligence contractor turned whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

"He needed help," father Supun Kellapatha, told DW.  "We are human, right?" He and his wife, Nadeeka Nonis, met in Hong Kong after they both fled persecution and abuse in Sri Lanka over their political opinions. They were used to helping new refugees on arrival.

Then one day in 2013, the family's immigration lawyer, Robert Tibbo, arrived at the door with his client Edward Snowden.

They immediately agreed to let Snowden stay, and took care of him in Hong Kong before he fled to Moscow.

Although the refugee family soon realized that helping Snowden was risky, the magnitude of what he was doing strengthened their resolve to help, despite the danger.

"First we helped him as a human being — as a refugee — because he had nowhere to go. But we also made an extra effort to take care of him because we think he did the right thing."

Read more: Edward Snowden: Germany a 'primary example' of NSA surveillance cooperation

Unsafe in Hong Kong

However, after the Hollywood film "Snowden" was released in 2016, the family's already difficult life as refugees in Hong Kong took a turn for the worse.

Upon seeing their role in Snowden's story revealed in the movie, they decided along with Tibbo to make their identities public — in the hope that transparency would be the best form of protection.

"When things are hidden, the most horrible things happen," Tibbo told DW, adding that they had expected Hong Kong authorities to adhere to the city's rule of law and protect the family.

"We didn't expect that the authorities, who were supposed to protect my clients, would do the opposite."

Watch video 02:43

The refugees who helped Edward Snowden

Tibbo said that after the family went public, they were put under surveillance, followed and questioned. Additionally, after years of delays, immigration authorities took up their asylum cases again.

"It was clear that they were preparing to detain them and deport them," said Tibbo.

The lawyer also felt pressured by Hong Kong authorities himself, and eventually fled the city in November 2017 with the help of the Canadian Consulate and the non-profit organization Lawyers without Borders.

But for the refugees stuck in Hong Kong, leaving was not an option.

"We were scared," Kellapatha said. "We kept moving and slept in different hotels from week to week."

"Someone was calling from a private number asking where my daughter went to school. So I kept my daughter at home," Kellapatha said. Sethumdi would end up missing more than a year of school.

In the spring of 2017, their fears mounted after they heard that officers from Sri Lanka's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had visited Hong Kong looking for them.

"We know they were targeting and hunting my clients," Tibbo said. Sri Lankan and Hong Kong authorities deny the allegations.

Escape to Canada

Kellapatha and his family were joined by Filipino refugee Vanessa Rodel in sheltering Snowden in Hong Kong. Rodel and Kellapatha have a daughter, Keana, from an earlier relationship

Another Sri Lankan refugee, Ajith Puspa, said he served as Snowden's bodyguard.

In 2016, as the threat of deportation loomed over all of them, Tibbo turned to a group of Canadian lawyers for help. They set up an organization called "For the Refugees" and filed asylum applications in Canada.

'Snowden refugees' Rodel and daughter Keana arrive in Montreal, Canada in March 2019

Rodel and daughter Keana arrived in Montreal, Canada in March 2019

For Rodel and her daughter Keana, the effort worked. After their claims were accepted by Canada, they arrived at Montreal airport in March 2019.

But the fate of the Sri Lankans in Hong Kong remains unclear.

For Ajith, delays to his case by Hong Kong's Torture Claim Appeal Board offer "some sort of protection," Tibbo said, while admitting that chances are low that the claim will be accepted.

The situation is more urgent for Kellapatha's family, whose asylum claims in Hong Kong have already been rejected.

They could be deported to Sri Lanka at any time, and the parents are terrified that they might be separated from their young children. They still feel unsafe in Hong Kong.

"Every time we go outside, we need to go as a family. I'm very scared about them going alone," Kellapatha said.

"Sometimes we sense people following us or looking at us, but we can't go to the police about this. We don't trust Hong Kong police."

Hong Kong is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, and very few asylum seekers are accepted to settle there.  By comparison, Germany offered some level of protection to 37.3% of asylum seekers in 2019.

Read more: Can whistleblowers be recognized as refugees?

Tibbo said he believes Canada has come under pressure from the US and other governments in the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance over the cases.

"I see no reason why Canada would have proceeded with Vanessa's case and left the other two cases hanging," Tibbo said.

A spokesperson for Canada's immigration department told DW in an email that applications are processed on a "first-in, first-out basis." However, the lawyers said that the refugees' applications in Canada were filed at the same time.

"Canada's refugee and asylum system is an objective process in which decisions are taken about the standards refugees meet," the immigration spokesperson wrote.

Watch video 12:40

Robert Tibbo: Snowden 'would like to live in Germany'

A painful separation

As Keana's father, Kellapatha feels the two families have been torn apart. They were always close, and the children spent a lot of time together.

"One of my kids has a free life, so if I think about her, I'm happy. But on the other hand, I'm upset, nervous and sad, because I miss her a lot."

For his other daughter, Sethumdi, the separation from Keana has been especially difficult.

"Sethumdi always talks about her sister," said mother Nadeeka Nonis, who considers Keana to be a family member.

"After they talk on the phone, Sethumdi always asks why we cannot go, but I don't have an answer. It's very difficult because I don't know what to tell her."

Tibbo and the lawyers from For the Refugees are calling on Canada to reunite the families, citing UN guidelines which direct against family separations.

Read more: From VW to Julian Assange: How does extradition work?

The cover of the South China Morning Post with Edward Snowden

Snowden spoke to Hong Kong media in June 2013 about US-led espionage

No regrets for helping Snowden

After two pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong were granted asylum in Germany in May 2019, Tibbo said there is now a legal precedent of political persecution, which could "significantly" strengthen the refugees' claims as it "puts Canada on notice" that Hong Kong is unsafe.

When Edward Snowden left the family's home in 2013, he was wearing Kellapatha's shirt and baseball cap as a disguise.

"He asked me, 'can I borrow it?' I told him he could borrow it forever," Kellapatha said as he smiled.

Although the family is in a precarious situation, they have no regrets over what they did. "Because we helped him, we have some threats to our life and there is danger," Nonis said. "But despite that, I don't regret it."

"When we see what Snowden did, it gives us some strength," said Kellapatha.

Tibbo continues to represent Snowden, and the family in Hong Kong. He said he does not regret asking the refugees for help, and said the decision was made in an "extremely difficult situation," with Snowden at risk of abduction or assassination.

"In terms of the problems they [the refugees] have today, this is not something I've done. This is not something they've done. This is something that the Hong Kong authorities have done," Tibbo said. 

Watch video 28:36

Whistleblower – Alone against the system

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