Wednesday morning in Ottawa, advocates for the refugees who gave shelter to U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong held a press conference to demand action from the Canadian government. In March, two of the “Snowden Refugees” arrived in Canada. Another five refugees, however, including two young stateless children, are still awaiting their decision.
In Ottawa, spokespeople with the organization For the Refugees expressed frustration with the Liberal government for ignoring their appeals for help. We are republishing in full the remarks from today’s media conference from two of the three lawyers representing the refugees.
- Exclusive interview: Edward Snowden on the refugees who hid him
- Canada is our last hope: Refugees who sheltered Snowden appeal to Trudeau
Statement from Marc-André Séguin, president of For the Refugees:
The case of the Snowden Refugees has been ongoing for the last three years. Their lives have been in shambles for over a decade. Two of them have been safe and in Canada for seven months. The others continue to live in fear. We have worked and been ignored by this government for years. We are here today because we are at the end of our rope. The families are at the end of theirs. They have surpassed their limits in terms of their ability to cope.
In March of this year, roughly seven months ago, two of the Snowden Refugees, Vanessa and her daughter Keana, arrived in Canada. They left Hong Kong as vulnerable asylum seekers and walked out of Pearson airport in Toronto as Canadian permanent residents. The news of their arrival, that Canada had offered its protection to two of the asylum seekers who in 2013 had selflessly sheltered the American whistleblower Edward Snowden, made headlines around the world. But more importantly, it gave the remaining five Snowden Refugees hope that they too would soon find safety.
We are now in mid-October. The remaining Snowden Refugees still have no decision. The group includes two young stateless children: Sethumdi, who is turning eight years old next week, and Dinath who is four years old, both Keana’s half-siblings. They also include Supun, Keana’s father; his partner Nadeeka, who is the mother of the other two children; as well as Ajith, a single man.
All live in fear. They remain extremely vulnerable due to the great danger they face in their home country of Sri Lanka. Their asylum cases in Hong Kong were all refused a long time ago, and they face removal to Sri Lanka at any time. But they face danger in Hong Kong too, where there are documented reports of Sri Lankan agents searching for these refugees by name, overt hostility towards asylum seekers and the worst political crisis in decades unfolding on the streets.
After nearly three years of asking for Canada’s protection, after seven months of seeing that protection granted to two of theirs and not the others, after seven months of separation, of a father separated from his child, of siblings not seeing each other, what is Canada doing? And why are we, a few burned-out volunteers, forced to do what our government should be doing? Why are we protecting and funding these families on our own, exhausting ourselves to protect these exceptional yet vulnerable people, including two stateless children? We’ve made a clear case for Canada to take the Snowden Refugees in. Canada has already done the right thing with Vanessa and her daughter Keana by giving them refugee protection. Why are the others made to wait?
Our government needs to stop being afraid of angering the U.S. Our government needs to start worrying about angering its constituents by inhumanely denying reunification between these young siblings and their parents.
Two loving sisters live separated from one another. One has access to a decent school and a safe, normal life. The other lives in a small apartment with scared parents, in a city that is going through its most important crisis in decades. One sister lives with her mother in a safe neighbourhood in Montreal. The other sister’s parents live in constant fear of being deported to their home country of Sri Lanka, where they face arrest, detention, torture, and possibly death. While Keana focuses on her homework, this other little girl lives with the constant threat of losing her parents forever, and of being drawn into human trafficking.
More importantly, that little girl is growing up thinking that she doesn’t deserve the protection that Canada has already given to her half-sister. Already traumatized from growing up in Hong Kong as a stateless child and from being immersed her whole life in a country that treats asylum seekers like her like garbage, she is now even more alone.
The contrast could not be more heartbreaking. Keana is going to a good school and making friends. Sethumdi, her half-sister, gets bullied because of the colour of her skin and breathes tear gas on her way home from class. Keana got to go to summer camp for the first time this year. Her little half-brother, Dinath, is being denied access to kindergarten schools by Hong Kong authorities.
As reported in a Maclean’s article published last week, I last saw Sethumdi in person in July of this year. At that time, she handed me a letter to give to her sister Keana. The letter read:
Dear Keana, I really miss you. I like the T-shirts you sent me, and our brother likes the dinosaur, he plays with it every day. I hope now you can speak French. After I come to Canada, can you teach me French? And can you show me around Canada? I really want to come to Canada and play with you on snow. I also want to make snowmans with you. Good luck [in the] future. From sister, Sethumdi.
These words are heartbreaking.
The Harper government was defeated in 2015 in part due to its poor and shameful track record on refugee protection. Its failures were illustrated by the photo of a dead 3-year old Syrian boy on a Turkish beach, a heartbreaking photo that shocked the world. That boy’s father, who was denied Canada’s protection, blamed Canadian authorities for his son’s death. That photo remains forever on the record as a symbol of the Harper government’s failure to deal with the world’s refugee crisis.
Well here are our photos. Here are the faces of the Trudeau government’s neglect. The photos of a family separated. Two loving half-sisters who have not seen each other for months and who are both diagnosed as suffering permanent psychological harm as a result of this separation. A father in distress separated from his seven year-old daughter. Heartbroken and scared parents and children who have all asked for Canada’s protection, who have lived similar stories and have been exposed to serious risks in their home countries and in Hong Kong where they have already been denied asylum. Two of them are safe since March. The five others are not. Canada won’t tell us why.
We’ve been appealing to the Trudeau government to take these vulnerable refugees in for years. Now, and after months of having no answers for the remaining Snowden Refugees, we’re demanding that the Trudeau government do the right thing. We’re asking for our elected officials to look at these photos and ask themselves, not just as politicians but as parents and human beings: is this acceptable?
Vanessa tried to ask the question to her elected Member of Parliament last Summer, Liberal candidate Marc Miller. His office never answered our email asking for a meeting. We’ve asked for meetings with everyone under the sun in this Liberal government, none have even responded.
The Trudeau government was elected in 2015 on the promise of protecting refugees. But apparently this election cycle it is less fashionable to talk about that. And yet our clients continue to live in fear. Others continue to live in fear as well. They deserve a voice.
Justin Trudeau has talked the talk. Now it is time for him to walk the walk. And we are asking that every Canadian who shares our outrage ask their Liberal candidates, and in fact every candidate, whether they believe this separation and this waiting is acceptable. Is Justin Trudeau a humanitarian, or is he a hypocrite? Every Canadian deserves to know. These two little girls deserve to know.
Statement from Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, lawyer for the Snowden Refugees:
It’s important for me today, notably as the attorney for Supun, Nadeeka, Sethumdi and Dinath, to detail what they have been facing in the last months and to describe their psychological distress. Obviously, I will also detail the particular effects that this family separation now has on Keana and how this is affecting her development.
Let me start by saying that it has now been one year since the families were interviewed by the Canadian Consulate. One year since the agents have asked their full questions to them; one year since Sethumdi’s hopes has gone up, but also one year during which Canada has failed her. With all due respect, we submit that the merits of the current case speak for themselves and that they need to be accepted with no further delay.
Sethumdi saw her sister Keana leave Hong Kong last March 25; this is more than six months ago. At that time, the sisters asked us and asked their parents if they would see each other ever again. Whilst we could not answer them with certainty, we made ourselves a promise in our hearts that we would not let their destiny be separated. Today, we are once more asking for these little girls dreams to be materialised.
Keana has recently met psychologist Rose Oudot and the expert was mandated to assess the little girl’s current psychological state in Canada. We cannot disclose the report for confidentiality reasons, but we can certainly share the psychologist’s conclusions with you. The psychologist stated in her report that Keana is currently facing important distress caused by her separation from the rest of her family, and, were that separation to continue, this will have severe consequences on her development. Keana is hurting, always worrying about her dad, her sister and her brother, always focusing and asking questions on their well-being, thus making it very hard for her to fully integrate in Canada. The psychologist states that imminent family reunification is of paramount importance for Keana’s development and integration in Canada. Her best interests are thus currently not being respected.
During this time, in Hong Kong, her family members have been living under extremely difficult circumstances as the city is shaken by an extremely courageous civil liberty movement and the abusive, violent, and dramatic response of the authorities. The direct consequences of this are that the family’s safety and movement have been limited and that the parents are greatly fearing for their kids’ well being. Moreover, the communication between Keana and her family has become less and less accessible, making it hard for the two sisters to share their precious video call moments. For the two sisters, the last months have been extremely difficult. Consequently, Sethumdi will see her psychiatrist shortly as she is getting more and more depressed.
Last May, five months ago, we have added an additional component to the current refugee status application to Canada, namely humanitarian and compassionate factors, to help Canada do the right thing. We have submitted important evidence demonstrating that the best interests of Sethumdi and Dinath, two stateless children, are to be reunited with their sister in Canada where they can live safely and with dignity. The family is facing imminent threat of removal, they are living in extremely precarious conditions in Hong Kong, the parents are also under severe stress and in a depressive mental state.
Frankly, the question here is quite simple. How much longer can stateless children live under tremendous distress in Hong Kong. How much longer will their lives be in danger, how much longer will they have to face discrimination and important development limitations? And ... how much longer can Canada accept to separate sisters? How much longer can Canada accept to separate a little girl from her father? How much longer will Keana, seven years old, have to worry about her sister and brother’s security and well being?
Respectfully, they cannot wait any longer.
Donations to support these refugees can be made at ForTheRefugees.Com