Snowden's angels

Exclusive interview: Edward Snowden on 'criminal' treatment of refugees who hid him

NSA whistleblower fears for the safety of three families who sheltered him in 2013
Robert Tibbo

In 2013, Edward Snowden was a man on the run. The National Security Agency contractor had fled his home in Hawaii with a trove of classified documents that revealed the existence of a massive domestic spying operation in the United States.

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His first stop was in Hong Kong, where he met with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras at the Mira hotel. But after his story went public, it became clear that he would not be safe there.

He was put in touch with a Canadian barrister named Robert Tibbo, who came up with a daring plan to hide Snowden in the one place no one would ever look.

Now living in Russia as a fugitive from the U.S. government, Snowden reached out to Ricochet to underline the desperate circumstances of the three families of refugee claimants who risked everything to provide sanctuary to an unknown stranger back in 2013.

The treatment of refugees by the Hong Kong government is “a kind of law which is itself criminal,” Snowden says, asking everyone to “give a thought to the life these children's parents will wake up to tomorrow.”

There is nothing respectable in the comfortable undermining of the vulnerable and destitute, and it should earn more than our contempt. It should face our resistance. - Edward Snowden

According to Tibbo, the three families who aided Snowden are not safe and urgently need to find asylum in another country. He points to Canada as an ideal place for the families to resettle. “If you ask these families which country they would like to go to, first and without hesitation they would respond 'Canada,'” he says.

The following interview with Snowden was conducted by encrypted relay through his lawyer, Robert Tibbo. Responses from a separate interview with Tibbo, who represents dozens of refugee claimants in Hong Kong, including the three families who sheltered Snowden, have been provided for context. Both interviews are exclusive to Ricochet.

You got a firsthand look at the living conditions of refugees in Hong Kong. Can you tell us what you think of how refugees are treated?

Edward Snowden: Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world, yet I saw refugees struggling through days whose poverties were punctuated by discrimination and repression. It seems beyond imagination that a government could deny people the right to work for a wage while also refusing them money to eat, instead providing food provisions that were wholly insufficient to survive on and often spoiled and out of date, but that's how the system worked then.

Today food coupons and food debit cards with a limited value per month are provided to the asylum seekers, but again it is far below what is required to survive on. So asylum seekers in Hong Kong are still left hungry and destitute today.

The Hong Kong government has intentionally designed a system where they fail to meet the basic needs of asylum seekers. - Robert Tibbo

In my own case, I was told it could take a decade to process an asylum claim. A decade! Try to imagine that, if only for a few seconds. For the next 10 years, you'll be arrested if you dare to work, but you're on your own to find sufficient food, to pay the full rent, to pay the full utility bills, to buy clothes, to find sufficient travel money for the bus or subway trains, money for a telephone, to just have enough money to meet your basic needs.

Robert Tibbo: What the Hong Kong government has done is intentionally designed a system where they fail to meet the basic needs of asylum seekers in Hong Kong. These asylum seekers are left destitute, and this is a violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 3 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights. If an asylum seeker is not allowed to work, and the government fails to meet their basic needs, it amounts to inhumane and degrading treatment. This violation is equivalent to a breach of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Hong Kong government has left over 10,000 asylum seekers in limbo for years. And they've left them in circumstances where they're destitute, they've suffered inhumane and degrading treatment, and the asylum seekers get to a point where they say, "We're desperate, we're hungry, we don't have enough food, don't have enough nutrition, can't pay the rent" so they start embarking on risky behaviour — begging or theft, for example. Asylum seekers are quite often arrested for stealing milk powder, because they're trying to get milk for their babies, for their children.

Some of them don't want to steal. Some of them don't want to do a bad thing. They don't want to go to prison for 22 months for working illegally, they don’t want to steal, so what they do is they say, "I give up. I'd rather go back to my home country. If I'm going to die in one place or be in prison in the other, I'd rather go back to my home country and die there" or suffer whatever they're going to suffer.

The legal term for that is “Constructive Refoulement.”

Constructive refoulement, in my view, has been a clear, designed strategy of the Hong Kong government. The government can say, "We didn't deport them or remove them. They wanted to leave."

It has become fashionable in some circles to demonize people whose lives are already defined by disaster and lack. - Edward Snowden

No reasonable person would go back to their home country to face persecution or torture or cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. When you're treated that badly for so long, your mental and physical integrity is compromised. If you make a decision to go back and suffer persecution and torture, that's a red flag.

That says the Hong Kong government is doing something seriously wrong. They don't have to remove them; they just wait until they give up, until they break.

Snowden: How long could you last? There is a kind of law which is itself criminal, and this is a clear example.

We all have our struggles and priorities, and I understand all too well the desire to wall ourselves off from the hard problems of the world. But ignoring a thing doesn't make it go away. When you're laying in bed tonight, give a thought to the life these children's parents will wake up to tomorrow.

It has become fashionable in some circles to demonize people whose lives are already defined by disaster and lack. If a refugee works to meet their own very basic needs for food, rent and utilities, basic clothing, they're a criminal — at best stealing a job. If they don't work, as the law requires, they're a leech, an amoral layabout looking for a handout they neither earned nor deserve and they are left destitute.

The logic is diseased, incapable of imagining a universe in which a refugee is not a malignant force of nature, but a desperate person who more often than not recovers from the outrages of misfortune to support not only themselves, but contribute to society. There is nothing respectable in the comfortable undermining of the vulnerable and destitute, and it should earn more than our contempt. It should face our resistance.

Tibbo: One of my clients, a journalist who almost died many times in Somalia, broke last year and he returned to that country. And now he's on the run in Somalia.

The acceptance rate of asylum seekers in Hong Kong in a given year is 0.36 per cent. If you round that off to the nearest whole number, it's zero per cent.

If we're all sitting around waiting for a hero to show up, we're missing the point. You're the one you're waiting for. - Edward Snowden

The three families who helped Snowden are in this position, and over the last three years, at different times, they've wanted to give up. They got to a point where they were breaking, where they said, “We'd rather go back to our home country and suffer the consequences."

What can people in Canada, or around the world, do to help these refugees?

Snowden: I don't believe in heroes. The mythical figure of a shining hero is a mirage, because each of us are complicated by our humanity. The founders of my country fought a revolution to establish the rights of a people while at the same time they were enslaving another.

We're flawed. But we are never farther than a single decision away from a heroic act. Those moments are real. They're around us all the time. And that's the thing: If we're all sitting around waiting for a hero to show up, we're missing the point. You're the one you're waiting for.

That's what I learned in Hong Kong, when these incredible people didn't simply say, "I'm sorry, I have a family," and close the door in my face. No one would have blamed them, but they knew better. They'd been through the bad times. They'd seen what happens when people wait for someone else to fix everything. When someone in trouble knocked on their door, they answered, and it might have saved a man's life.

Now they're knocking on yours. Be the person that matters. Don't wait for a politician to do the right thing. Make them do it.

Tibbo: For the three families, I want them out of Hong Kong as soon as possible. Immediately. And I want them relocated, resettled in another country.

The problem is that other countries will only take asylum seekers if they're recognized refugees. The situation here is that these three families, because of the 0.36 per cent acceptance rate, these families will almost certainly be rejected. And if they're rejected, no third country will take them.

You have a system where the acceptance rate should be 50 per cent, could be as low as 35 per cent but it should be much, much higher. So you have a screening system here, and you have courts, which are looking at this effectively zero per cent acceptance rate and they're saying, "Well, that's reasonable."

For the three families, I want them out of Hong Kong as soon as possible. Immediately. And I want them relocated, resettled in another country. - Robert Tibbo

But we all know as experienced lawyers, when you have a zero per cent acceptance rate, that's what we call an inherent improbability. It means the system is unfair and it’s defective. It's broken.

These three families are in Hong Kong with a zero acceptance rate, so in all likelihood they're going to be rejected. Then they're going to be removed to their home countries, where they're going to be persecuted, tortured and even killed in some cases. There are certain clients, I am absolutely certain they will be killed when they go back.

Did Hong Kong officials specifically question or interrogate these families about their role with Snowden?

Tibbo: Absolutely. Vanessa Rodel, the Filipina woman, went in to see a caseworker with International Social Service Hong Kong [the government contractor responsible for asylum seekers’ basic needs], and she immediately began to question Ms. Rodell about Mr. Snowden, and she wanted particulars and details on Mr. Snowden's stay with her family. So Ms. Rodel told the case officer, "I'm not telling you anything. You need to talk to my lawyer."

Then the case officer immediately said, "We're not paying for your electricity." Ms. Rodel said "No, you're going to pay. You have to pay for my basic needs." Within a week they said, "We're cutting off all our assistance to you."

No food, no rent, no electricity.

In my view, they clearly took an approach that they wanted answers from Ms. Rodel about Mr. Snowden, and when she didn't provide them they punished her.

ISS-HK also questioned Supun and Nadeeka about Snowden and had in hand a special file of printouts of media coverage on Snowden and the families. This family refused to answer questions, and now ISS-HK has refused to pay for their most basic needs in full despite their requests, both orally and in writing.

As for the third family, Ajith has lost his food debit card and ISS-HK has refused to replace it and told him he will not get a new one in the future. They have cut him off from food assistance and told him they could only give him a temporary supply of emergency dry and canned food stored at the ISS-HK offices.

Again ISS-HK refuses to pay in full for Ajith’s basic needs, despite his oral and written requests.

What happened in these cases? Were the decisions reversed?

Tibbo: I've written a series of letters to ISS Hong Kong [on behalf of Ms. Rodel], demanding that they pay. They refused, and ISS is not providing any assistance to her. They still refuse to pay for her basic needs in full.

They clearly took an approach that they wanted answers from Ms. Rodel about Mr. Snowden, and when she didn't provide them they punished her. - Robert Tibbo

The last time she went to ISS-HK they asked her to sign an assistance agreement. She told them she required a copy to show her lawyer before she signed anything. They refused, and told her that if she signed it first (without legal advice) they would only then provide a copy to show her lawyer.

As for the other two families, ISS-HK continues to refuse to provide sufficient assistance to meet their basic needs.

Would you like to see the Canadian government intervene?

Tibbo: That would definitely be something that these families would like to see. What I can say is that if you ask these families which country they would like to go to, first and without hesitation they would respond "Canada."

The asylum-seeking community in Hong Kong is very aware of Canada as a nation that respects human rights. Stephen Harper didn't really do a very good job on that front. He did things that in my view deteriorated the image of Canada.

But I know Mr. Trudeau was at a United Nations conference in New York in September, and he spoke quite a bit about Canada as a country and its value system, its culture, and that it embraces its international legal obligations and is a country that embraces the opportunity to bring refugees into Canada.

It appears that he wants to put Canada back on track, in terms of fulfilling its legal obligations under international law.

Canada is a democracy, and it functions at times very, very well. I would say that if Canadians recognize that my clients are in an impossible situation, and if Canadians feel these are the kind of people they want to bring into Canada, then they should be taking the steps that they can take.

They could write to their member of parliament, they could write to the director of immigration in their province, they could write to the minister of immigration. Any Canadians who feel they would like to be vocal about this, again it's a democracy and there's freedom of expression and if Canadians want to be vocal about this, then they can do that through many, many channels.

Obviously if Canadians feel strongly about these families, these are steps that would be most welcome.

We set up a GoFundMe page, and we’ve been raising funds for these families. So far we’ve raised around $25,000 there, and Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden donated $20,000 last month. But that money is simply for their housing, their food, their transport and utilities and for the education of a couple of the children, because they’re in primary school now.

This is just an immediate remedy. Ultimately we'd like to have them leave Hong Kong to a safe third country.

You can donate directly to the basic needs of the three families who sheltered Snowden through this GoFundMe page. These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
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