“I feel very nervous,” Ajith, one of seven refugees who helped shelter NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong in 2013 explained to an audience of Canadian journalists. “I’m worried, thinking that maybe they’ll deport us, but I still have hope. You are our last hope.”
“If I go to Sri Lanka, I will die. I know that,” he added in a tone of quiet resignation. “That’s why I don’t want to go back.”
From the Hong Kong office of lawyer Robert Tibbo, the refugees told their stories via Skype to a room of journalists at a hastily arranged press conference Monday morning in Montreal.
The seven asylum seekers, including three stateless children under the age of five, hail from different countries and filed refugee claims years apart, but were all notified that their claims were rejected on May 11. That’s no surprise, as Hong Kong has an acceptance rate of effectively zero for asylum seekers, accepting only 0.36 per cent of claims each year. The joint treatment of their cases at this time, however, indicates to their lawyers that they are being penalized for their role in helping Snowden.
“Ever since their involvement with Edward Snowden became public last year, the Hong Kong government has been targeting them for expulsion,” Montreal-based lawyer Michael Simkin explained in an interview with Ricochet. “After languishing for years, their unrelated cases all had hearings within a week, and judgements issued on the same day.”
“At every meeting with these refugees, Hong Kong officials have pressured them for information about Snowden, all the while showing no interest in their asylum claims and refusing to investigate verified allegations that Sri Lankan agents were looking for [some of] our clients on Hong Kong soil.”
Now, as their lawyers scramble to file appeals, the refugees face deportation within a matter of weeks. That would return them to countries where they face what their legal team describe as credible and well-documented threats to their lives.
Canada ‘should act immediately’
The Canadian government has told the lawyers that the file is currently being treated by the consulate in Hong Kong, and the immigration minister’s office has said it has received the request, is aware it is being treated by the consulate and understands the urgency. Despite the rush, a decision may not come in time to prevent the refugees from being deported to their countries of origin.
Canada is one of only a few countries in the world that will consider refugee claimants on the merits of their case, without requiring them to be screened and designated as a refugee by the UNHCR. The Canadian lawyers for the refugees are asking the minister of immigration to use his ministerial powers to bring these refugees to Canada while their claims are processed, given the impending risk of deportation and an uncertain future.
“We now have less than two weeks to submit appeals before the families are deported,” said lawyer Robert Tibbo. “In the meantime they may be detained and their children placed in foster care.”
"I'm so, so worried about my kids,” said Nadeeka, one of the refugees. “If they detain me, they'll separate me from my kids. I don't want to go back to my country. It's very dangerous for me and my family.”
"I'm very upset, I'm very worried, I'm mentally down,” said Vanessa, another of the refugees, about the rejection of her asylum claim in Hong Kong. "We have only 14 days to appeal.”
The families and their lawyers received a boost Monday morning as Human Rights Watch released a public statement calling on Canada to act on their case.
“Those who helped Edward Snowden in Hong Kong when he was seeking asylum now find themselves at dire risk if sent back to their countries,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch, in the statement. “Canada has the opportunity to prevent a terrible outcome and should act immediately.”
Is Canada back?
Ricochet was one of the first Canadian outlets to report on the plight of these refugees, when in December 2016 it published an exclusive interview with Tibbo and his most famous client, Edward Snowden.
“When someone in trouble knocked on their door, they answered, and it might have saved a man's life,” Snowden told Ricochet at the time, describing his experience staying with the refugees in 2013. “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.”
Asked if they regretted helping Snowden at the press conference, the refugees all said no, expressing pride in having helped a vulnerable man in a situation akin to their own and praising Snowden for his continuing help and support.
Speaking about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, lawyer Michael Simkin said, “There’s no political leader who has taken a more public and clear position on their country’s policy being openness to refugees.”
“Trudeau tweeted that refugees are welcome in Canada, and named a former refugee as minister of immigration. That signals to us that Canada is the best place for these families to find safety, security and rebuild their lives and those of their children.”
In the meantime, the refugees’ legal team is looking to the public to help cover the costs of the emergency appeals by collecting donations on their website.
“We’re looking at under two weeks to prepare seven appeals, for seven different cases,” explained Simkin. “So we’re raising $15,000 to cover those costs, with any extra funds going to the families.”
Trudeau has declared on the world stage that Canada is “back” after the Harper years. Seven refugees in Hong Kong are now looking to his government to back up those words with action and save them from the dire risk of being returned to their home countries.