Refugees who helped Edward Snowden now look to Canada
Lawyers are attempting to bring refugee families over amid concerns of grave reprisals
The refugee families in Hong Kong, China, on Monday. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images
For two weeks they sheltered the world’s most wanted man, ferrying Edward Snowden between tiny apartments in Hong Kong’s poorest neighbourhood.
Now the four refugees are at the centre of a court battle in Canada, as lawyers frantically work to bring them and their children to the country amid concerns that they face grave reprisals over their actions.
“It seems like the families’ connection to Snowden has made them radioactive and put them in a uniquely vulnerable situation,” said Michael Simkin, one of the lawyers behind a motion filed this week in federal court and aimed at expediting asylum claims for the group in Canada.
The families lived in obscurity until last year, when Oliver Stone’s film on the whistleblower revealed that Mr Snowden had been protected by asylum seekers in Hong Kong.
After journalists tracked them down, the refugees – three from Sri Lanka and one from the Philippines – came forward, explaining that they had been introduced by their mutual lawyer and that their actions had come before the US demand for Mr Snowden’s arrest was recognised in Hong Kong.
Since then, the asylum seekers claim they’ve been routinely questioned by authorities to find out what they know about Mr Snowden. Their lawyers have spoken out about relocating their clients several times over suspicions that members of Sri Lankan security forces are attempting to find them.
In May, Hong Kong rejected their asylum claims, paving the way for deportation to their home countries, where the claimants say they could face imprisonment, torture and even death. Lawyers are now appealing the decisions; though they believe they have little hope of success.
Two weeks ago, the asylum claimants – who include a former Sri Lankan soldier who alleges he was tortured by the army and a single mother from the Philippines who said she fled the country after being kidnapped and sexually assaulted – were ordered to report to a detention centre in Hong Kong in early August. Their lawyers fear their children will end up in foster care as the parents await deportation.
Every development in their cases is being carefully tracked in Montreal, where a team of lawyers have launched For the Refugees, a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing the families to Canada as privately sponsored refugees.
Using funds collected from donors to cover the expenses of settling the families, the paperwork to bring the four adults and their three children to Canada was filed in January.
“We are encouraged by prime minister Trudeau’s commitment in taking a clear lead internationally in welcoming refugees,” lawyer Marc-Andre Seguin said in April.
Little progress made
But months later, it appears that little progress has been made in processing the Canadian claims, said Mr Simkin. “Canada today is truly their last – and only – hope,” added the lawyer. “Once the families are arrested, it will severely compromise our ability to ever relocate them to Canada. Our clients’ lives are at stake, and this may be their last chance to escape a horrific fate.”
In recognition of the urgency facing their cases, Mr Simkin said that Canada’s minister of immigration, Ahmed Hussen – who came to Canada as a teenaged refugee from Somalia – had committed in May to expedite the asylum claims. Two months later, consular officials said the files had not been fast-tracked, leaving the families at the whim of a process that could take years.
Mr Simkin questioned why the Canadian government had seemingly changed its mind. “We don’t know if the US has put any kind of pressure on Canada, we don’t know why minister Hussen has reversed his decision. What we do know is that the families and their three, stateless children who are under six years old are being punished, and that’s just not right,” he said. “We cannot use these families as a proxy for punishing Edward Snowden.”
After attempts to seek answers from the ministry proved fruitless, the lawyers said they were left with no other option but to file a legal challenge and hope that a federal court judge will force the Canadian government to fast-track the claims.
On Tuesday, the office of the minister of immigration said that the government is committed to ensuring every case is evaluated in a fair manner. “The minister has not made any commitment to expedite this application,” said a spokesperson for the minister, declining to comment further due to privacy reasons.
The legal saga that has entangled the refugees has also attracted attention from Human Rights Watch, who – noting that Hong Kong has accepted fewer than one per cent of refugee claims in recent years – urged Canada to open its doors to the families.
“The compassionate act of letting Edward Snowden into their homes should never have landed these families in peril,” the organisation’s Dinah PoKempner said in a statement.
“No one should have to risk a return to torture or persecution because they opened their door to another who feared the same.”
– (Guardian Service)