Trudeau’s decision to keep refugee families separated is unconscionable

The Liberal prime minister first elected as a champion of refugees is now dragging his feet in the case of asylum seekers who helped shelter U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden
Refugees Keana and Sethumdi are being kept apart by the Canadian government. (Photo: For the Refugees)
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Justin Trudeau was elected as prime minister in 2015 based on a platform of refugee protection. During that election campaign, after a dead Syrian child was photographed on a Turkish beach, Trudeau took a strong stand against the Conservative government for separating children from extended family in Canada and thus failing to prevent an avoidable death. Yet four years later, he has turned his back on stateless children in similar circumstances, even separating them from their immediate family in Canada.

The prime minister made the decision to split up three Snowden Refugee children earlier this month, prior to the federal election. This leaves Keana Kellapatha in Canada without her sister, Sethumdi, and her brother, Dinath, both stateless.

Canada drags its feet

Three families, collectively known as the Snowden Refugees, lawfully sheltered American whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong in June 2013. Keana, who is now safe in Montreal along with her mother, Vanessa Rodel, was granted refugee status and Canadian permanent residence in March 2019.

More than half a year later, the remaining five Snowden Refugees continue to wait in limbo and fear for Canada to provide them protection. These vulnerable families, including the two stateless children, are stuck in Hong Kong, a jurisdiction that is openly hostile to asylum seekers and international law, that has already refused their applications for protection and that we are now contesting to prevent their deportation to Sri Lanka, where they face arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and death.

Canada continues to drag its feet. These families are afraid, separated from their own and criminalized, and risk 22 months of imprisonment if caught working. They rely entirely on private donations to survive. Not only are they ostracized, discriminated against and persecuted, they are now exposed and in great fear of the Hong Kong authorities’ use of police violence against civilians in its largest human rights crisis in decades. Eight-year-old Sethumdi fears leaving her home and breathes tear gas on her way back from class, and at times even inside her own home. In spite of knowing all of this, Canada fails to act.

The Trudeau government inexplicably delayed the process for two long years

With the assistance of Montreal-based lawyers led by Marc-André Séguin and the sponsorship of NGO For the Refugees, the Snowden Refugees all filed Quebec private sponsorship applications for refugee protection in Canada on the same day in January 2017.

After filing refugee claims with Ottawa through Quebec’s refugee sponsorship program, it was expected that Trudeau’s government would immediately provide international protection to all three families, since Canadian immigration law provides for expedited processing for vulnerable applicants like the Snowden Refugees. Initially, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office confirmed in writing that their applications were being expedited. But in a shameful and inexplicable turn of events, seven weeks later Minister Hussen’s office backtracked, leaving the cases in limbo.

The Trudeau government inexplicably delayed the process for two long years and then brought Vanessa Rodel and her daughter, Keana, into Canada as refugees, while leaving the others behind, separating Keana from her brother, sister and father in Hong Kong. Our government did this knowing full well the remaining Snowden Refugees would endure continued discrimination, threats, abuses, harm and persecution by Hong Kong authorities. The consequences to date have been devastating, the separated stateless children most seriously affected.

Canada has historically made commitments and built capacity cementing its reputation as a beacon of light and role model for refugee protection. But the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper failed to protect tens of thousands of refugees amid the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis of the 21st century, and failed to protect two asylum-seeking children with extended family in Canada, resulting in their avoidable deaths, in particular the death of Alan Kurdi. It was Kurdi’s death that Trudeau pounced upon to criticize Harper’s government during the 2015 federal election campaign.

Liberal Party leader at that time, Trudeau criticized Harper and the Conservative ministers of immigration:

That there was a path and a reason that these particular little boys should be right now preparing for the beginning of the school year in Vancouver with their cousins instead of reminding us all that Canada over the past years has failed to be the country that we like to imagine it to be… a terrible mistake was made and when someone makes a mistake you apologise and you try to fix it as best you can. That’s something I think Canadians will expect to hear from the Prime Minister, Jason Kenney and Chris Alexander.

Trudeau subsequently stormed to power on his refugee platform in October 2015. He immediately adopted Canada’s past Liberal government refugee policies, bringing tens of thousands of refugees to safety in Canada.

In September 2016, the Snowden Refugees were exposed in Oliver Stone’s film Snowden, about their role in lawfully sheltering Snowden in Hong Kong. As of consequence, Hong Kong authorities reacted swiftly, systematically targeting and stripping away humanitarian assistance to the Snowden Refugees; harassing, obstructing and seeking my removal as their Canadian Hong Kong–based lawyer; and facilitating the entry of the Sri Lankan Police CID into Hong Kong to hunt these families down. Instead of protecting them, Hong Kong police have been investigating them. Hong Kong Immigration has rejected all their asylum claims. Even the Hong Kong Bar Association resorted to anonymous complaints relating to Snowden to harass and obstruct me as their lawyer.

Ignoring pleas for help

Many have asked Trudeau to provide immediate protection to all the Snowden Refugees, to avoid a foreseeable tragedy. These include Oscar-winning film director Oliver Stone; actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley and Pamela Anderson; NGOs Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Lawyers Without Borders Canada; Hong Kong legislators Bonnie Leung, Charles Mok and James To, to name a few.

From 2017 to present day, Trudeau has ignored all these voices, in the face of ongoing Hong Kong police human rights abuses, which have left the Snowden Refugees retraumatized and at heightened risk of harm. Using his own words from 2015 to describe his conduct, he has, in the cases of my clients, “ignored the pleas of Canadian NGOs and of the international community” and continues to keep these families separated, raising questions about the extent of United States government pressure regarding these cases.

Trudeau must decide what his legacy will be: that of a prime minister like his father, who was true to his word in protecting the vulnerable, in spite of political challenges, or that of a prime minister who has let Washington, Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China dictate Canadian refugee policy.

In August, Trudeau stated, “We must recognize that China is a growing power and increasingly assertive towards its place in the international order. But make no mistake: we will always defend Canadians and Canadian interests.” Keana’s family in Hong Kong are included in these interests, but Trudeau has failed to defend her and her mother, who are Canadian permanent residents, and their interests in Keana’s father and stateless siblings at risk in Hong Kong. Trudeau, a father of three himself, has maintained complete silence, turning a blind eye to their separation and suffering.

Before the recent federal election campaign, Vanessa Rodel approached the office of Marc Miller, the Liberal MP representing her and her daughter Keana. Vanessa formally asked to meet withMiller to discuss her daughter’s separation from her father and stateless siblings. But Miller failed to acknowledge and respond to her request, thus refusing to meet with her and Keana.

On October 3, 2019, I wrote directly to Prime Minister Trudeau, requesting him to act before the federal election:

The Government of Canada has separated family members and delayed determination of valid refugee claims for people who acted kindly and with no prospect of reward or favour, and have suffered as a result. This is an injustice that can be remedied by swift action by your Government. The fact that we are now in an election campaign is no excuse for failing to do what is right.

Trudeau failed to reply to my letter. Instead, his office kicked it to the immigration office. A representative of Minister Hussen then provided a pro forma reply on election day, ignoring my request and the issues raised directly with Trudeau.

Trudeau and his administration have behaved in an identical manner as former Harper’s Conservative government, behaviour that Trudeau condemned and based his election platform upon. Here I use Trudeau’s own words from 2015 to describe his current conduct: “I think all Canadians want an explanation and an apology. An explanation as to why despite months and even years of NGOs, of the international community, of Canadians, of opposition parliamentarians asking this government to do more to address this refugee crisis, why they chose not to and an apology is in order.… I think Canadians will expect to hear from the Prime Minister.” But Trudeau failed to speak and failed to provide any explanation.

I had asked that Trudeau simply explain to Canadians why he has not acted to protect the Snowden Refugees still in Hong Kong and that his government act before the federal election was decided. He ignored these requests, requests based on his electoral promises of 2015. It is extraordinary that even after securing another term in office, he is unwilling to apply the high-powered perception he demonstrated to the public in 2015 to himself and his own government. Trudeau must decide what his legacy will be: that of a prime minister like his father, who was true to his word in protecting the vulnerable, in spite of political challenges, or that of a prime minister who has let Washington, Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China dictate Canadian refugee policy.

Trudeau needs to act now to protect and reunite these families in Montreal and to bring an end to the continuing harm and trauma these families and their children are suffering. It is the Canadian thing to do.

Robert Tibbo is a Canadian national and Hong Kong–based lawyer representing the Snowden Refugees and American whistleblower Edward Snowden. He is the lead lawyer of a team representing the Snowden Refugees, comprising Canadian lawyers in both Hong Kong and Montreal.

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