Today Canada welcomes two of the refugees who helped hide NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden while he was on the run in Hong Kong more than five years ago.
Vanessa Rodel and her seven-year-old daughter, Keana, have been accepted as privately sponsored refugees and will arrive in Montreal tonight.
“After seven years of fighting for the Snowden Refugees’ rights and freedoms, today the family of Vanessa and Keana have flown out of Hong Kong, finally leaving behind a world of racism, discrimination, exclusion and persecution,” said Rob Tibbo, the Hong Kong lawyer for the family, in a press release.
“They are en route to Canada where they will finally find safety and freedom in an inclusive society.”
Rodel’s journey to asylum has been long, harrowing, and decades in the making.
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For years Rodel was a domestic worker in Hong Kong. A visit home to the Philippines in 2000 turned nightmarish when she was kidnapped and raped. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was taken away from her and is now believed to be dead.
Shortly after escaping her aggressors, Rodel fled back to Hong Kong, where she applied for asylum in 2010 and became Tibbo’s client in 2012.
In 2013, Edward Snowden became the most wanted man in the world after leaking top-secret documents revealing the U.S. government’s extensive cyber-spying on ordinary people around the world. The former intelligence contractor fled the United States to Hong Kong, where Tibbo helped him find shelter among refugees in one of the poorest districts in the world’s richest city.
In Hong Kong’s beggared fringe of Sham Shui Po — home to refugees from Africa, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Vietnam — Rodel opened up her barren home to the stranger. For about four days, Snowden hid in the dingy, cramped one-bedroom apartment Rodel lived in with her mother and toddler.
When news broke of the refugees’ connection to Snowden in 2016, welfare and immigration authorities grilled them about it relentlessly, cut off their already paltry social assistance and then rejected their asylum cases entirely.
Five more waiting
Rodel and her family weren’t the only ones to aid Snowden in Hong Kong. Five other asylum seekers also sheltered him in their cramped quarters in 2013.
There was Ajith Kankanamalage, who left the Sri Lankan army after being subjected to abuse and rape from members within its ranks, and was later tortured for his desertion. He had taken on the role of Snowden’s bodyguard, given his military past. Still stranded in Hong Kong, with his social assistance also taken away, Kankanamalage has PTSD and fears death awaits him if he returns to Sri Lanka.
The remaining four are Supun Kellapatha, his wife Nadeeka Dilrukshi, and their children, Sethumdi and Dinath — who, like Keana, remain stateless. The couple met in Hong Kong after each fled Sri Lanka from persecution over their political opinions. As with the others, their government assistance was cut off after they sheltered Snowden.
After news of the refugees — dubbed Snowden’s Guardian Angels — and their ties to the fugitive whistleblower became public, the refugee claims of all seven were rejected on the same day in May 2017. This, despite the fact the claims had been filed years apart and had been on hold for years.
“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 told Ricochet in 2017. “After languishing for years, their unrelated cases all had hearings within a week, and judgements issued on the same day.”
Tibbo, who represents all the refugees as well as Snowden, went public about the refugees’ role in helping Snowden after learning a 2016 film by Oliver Stone would feature them, according to the National Post. Tibbo explained that he had arranged for Snowden to stay with the refugee families because no one would think to look for the whistleblower in the slums, adding that it had been legal and done with their full consent.
In December 2017, Tibbo fled Hong Kong, citing political pressure for his work with Snowden and the refugees. The Canadian national had lived and worked in Hong Kong for more than a decade.
‘The clock is still ticking’
The Montreal-based non-profit For the Refugees, founded by three Canadian lawyers, took up the refugees’ case in 2016. Since social assistance was cut off for the refugees, the non-profit has raised money to cover their rent, food and other costs.
The group has also called on Canada to give the refugees asylum. Quebec is among the few jurisdictions in the world where refugee cases can be considered without prior assessment by the UN High Commission for Refugees, which Hong Kong does not allow to occur on its territory.
“If you ask these families which country they would like to go to, first and without hesitation they would respond ‘Canada,’” Snowden remarked in an exclusive 2016 interview with Ricochet.
That’s how Rodel’s application as a privately sponsored refugee came to be filed by For The Refugees. The Canadian government approved it in January, and the news was kept under wraps until now for security reasons. The group is calling for the remaining refugees to be granted the same opportunity.
“Canada has done a great thing here, giving a home to a brave woman and her young daughter,” said Cristina Rogov, a lawyer with For the Refugees, in the press release.
“But the clock is still ticking for three other refugees and their two small children. Like Vanessa Rodel, they have been targeted due to their association with Snowden, and like Vanessa Rodel, their lives are in Canada’s hands. It’s time for Justin Trudeau to cut through the red tape, and get them to safety.”
“We’re deeply grateful to the government of Canada for getting Vanessa and Keana to safety,” added Marc-André Séguin, president of For the Refugees. “Now we need them to finish the job.”
Hong Kong’s failed asylum system
The lawyers stress the dire situation facing the remaining five refugees.
“These vulnerable refugees face documented threats of torture and death if returned to their home countries according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations,” the group’s press release stated.
The refugees’ chance of a future in Hong Kong is slim to none: conditions are poor, and just 0.36 per cent of asylum applications are accepted there each year.
“What the Hong Kong government has done is intentionally designed a system where they fail to meet the basic needs of asylum seekers,” Snowden told Ricochet in 2017.
“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.”
Despite the ordeals the refugees have faced, they have each said they do not regret their decision to help Snowden, expressing pride at helping someone in a situation very similar to their own.
“I helped him from the bottom of my heart,” Rodel recently told the National Post. “There was no pressure for me, no thinking twice to help him…. What he’s done, I’m very proud of him, he’s a hero.”
Prior to getting the chance to come to Canada, she said that “becoming a human rights activist here in Hong Kong has given my life meaning,” according to the For the Refugees website.
“If my daughter and I can get to Canada, I want to use my freedom to help other refugees like us.”
While Rodel may finally have an opportunity to realize her passions, the rest of the refugees who helped shelter Snowden remain in limbo.
“I ask Mr Trudeau to bring an end to the nightmare the remaining Snowden Refugees are experiencing in Hong Kong,” pressed Tibbo, “by simply bringing them all into Canada now.”