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Asylum seekers Vanessa Mae Bondalian Rodel from the Philippines, and Ajith Pushpakumara from Sri Lanka, who helped hide Edward Snowden while he was in Hong Kong in 2013, attend a special screening of the film 'Snowden' directed by Oliver Stone. Photo by Reuters from 2016
Hong Kong

The Asylum Seekers Who Sheltered Snowden Are Still Stuck in an Increasingly Violent Hong Kong

The group, collectively known as Snowden’s Guardian Angels, fears for their safety as protests erupt across the city.
September 24, 2019, 2:44am

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia

“We can’t sleep in fear of what’s happening… We’ve always kept to ourselves but now we’re more afraid than ever. We’re afraid to take our children to the park, afraid of taking public transport, or even wearing the wrong clothes and attracting police attention. We have no rights or agency in Hong Kong, and we’re afraid someone will take advantage of the political instability to target us.”

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These are the words of Supun Kellapatha, one of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers who sheltered Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who leaked highly classified security information from the US government in 2013. This, as the political instability in the city comes at a time when their fate could not be more uncertain. With the threat of extradition looming on the horizon, the violence engulfing the streets of Hong Kong serves as a startling reminder to Snowden’s Guardian Angels of their vulnerability–the term collectively used for the group of refugees that protected him. Even home no longer feels safe.

Supun, Nadeeka, and their two stateless children Sethumdi (7) and Dinath (3) have seen many protests take place on the streets below their residence. Close proximity to the violence has curtailed much of their movement but has also resulted in unwelcome intrusions like tear gas.

"It’s become dangerous even to stay at home, but we have nowhere else to go. We’re afraid to go out, but even at home we’ve had to deal with tear gas….. We have all been affected by it, especially the children, they were in so much pain. Home should be a safe place, but it doesn’t feel like it,” Supun told VICE. The violence, he added, reminds him of the country from which he fled, Sri Lanka, but his daughter Sethumdi has no such reference point. Born in Hong Kong and declared stateless, Sethumdi has witnessed this level of violence for the first time in her life.

“She’s aware that there’s something going on, and that it’s not safe. She seems to sense the danger and urges us to go back home on the rare occasion we go out,” said her mother, Nadeeka.

Snowden went into hiding in Hong Kong when the documents were first leaked. Ajith Pushpakumara, who also sheltered Snowden, is a former soldier who was tortured by the Sri Lankan army. His experience in Sri Lanka left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he is now reminded of this former hell. Robert Tibbo, lawyer to Snowden and his Guardian Angels, noted that the violence in Hong Kong has “retraumatised” Ajith. “He has witnessed firsthand the police going after people, no questions asked, batons raised. He is retraumatised and in great fear, and feels that he could be arrested and treated with violence at any moment. He’s afraid to leave his home. He has experienced all of this firsthand in Sri Lanka and is now seeing it again.”

Living in a country with a near negligible rate of asylum claims acceptance, the troubles in the city have added fresh fear to the already strained existence of Snowden’s Angels. Since their instrumental role in sheltering Snowden was revealed a few years ago, they have had their dormant non-refoulement claims–which asks that they not be forced to return to their countries where they are in danger of persecution – suddenly accelerated, rejected, placed on appeal, and for Supun and Nadeeka, submitted for judicial review.

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Their case lawyer Tibbo feels that ever since their involvement in sheltering Snowden was revealed, the Hong Kong government has reacted with hostility towards himself and his clients. He called the system “broken"—it neither recognises asylum seekers nor accepts them. Snowden himself is in Russia on temporary asylum.

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Edward Snowden and Robert Tibbo in Moscow, July 2016. Photo by N. Y. Jennifer.

The Hong Kong Immigration Department, meanwhile, told VICE that as the "1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol have never applied to Hong Kong…illegal immigrants seeking non-refoulement in Hong Kong will not be treated as ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees’”, and that Hong Kong “maintains a firm policy of not granting asylum and not determining or recognising [the] refugee status of anyone”.

The Department of Immigration added that it disagrees “with the comment that [the] USM (Unified Screening Mechanism, which is Hong Kong’s screening mechanism for non-refoulement cases) be considered a ‘broken system’” and that “each and every non-refoulement claim under USM has been and will be assessed and handled in the…high standards of fairness required by the law.” Tibbo himself was forced to flee Hong Kong in November 2017 after fearing arrest and facing much harassment.

The only chance Snowden’s Angels have of escaping extradition back to Sri Lanka is in the hands of Canada, which appears to be stalling. Although the group applied to Canada for asylum at the same time, in March 2019, Canada granted asylum only to Filipina Vanessa Rodel and her daughter Keana, who also sheltered Snowden. They have maintained silence on the claims of the three adult Sri Lankans and the two stateless children, despite being made aware of the precarious situation they are in. Tibbo added that no reason has been given by the Canadian government for the delay in responding to these claims. When contacted, the Canadian Immigration Department told VICE that “due to privacy laws, we can’t comment on specifics of a case without the applicants’ consent.”

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“Canada's refugee and asylum system is an objective process in which decisions are taken about the standards refugees meet. We generally process applications on a first-in, first-out basis,” it added.

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The fear of Snowden’s Angels, and other Sri Lankan asylum seekers—of being trapped in recurring cycles of violence, of having nowhere to escape, and of being returned to a country where arbitrary detentions are still a reality—is justified. While Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe claimed “all is forgiven”, appealing to the Sri Lankan asylum-seeking community across the world to return, human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias told VICE that returnee asylum seekers to Sri Lanka still face the possibility of arrest, detention, and even torture at the hands of the country’s police.

“It’s difficult to paint a blanket picture and generalise, but you also cannot deny that these things have happened in Sri Lanka. Where the Snowden Angels are concerned, the problem is that we don’t know what agreement the Sri Lankan government has in place with other governments. These processes are never transparent, and the public has no information."

He added, "They can be arrested, apprehended, formally punished and even receive rough treatment. It is difficult to say they are entirely safe if they are returned”. Reports that members of Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Division visited Hong Kong in search of Snowden’s Angels have also added to their fears. Sri Lanka police has denied the reports.

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Dinath, Sethumdi, Supun, and Keana (L-R). Photo by Marc-Andre Seguin

Sri Lanka itself, meanwhile, is at a crossroads: presidential elections will be held on November 16, and with it the possibility of a return to the Rajapaksa era. With the right-wing Sri Lanka People’s Front putting forward Gotabaya Rajapaksa—the former defence secretary accused of war crimes as a presidential candidate, the spectre of returning to an era known for its rampant human rights violations haunts Sri Lanka. With the embittered coalition in power rapidly losing popularity, it remains to be seen if the little progress the country has made in terms of reconciliation, accountability and human rights will be maintained.

Given the political environment in Sri Lanka, returning does not appear to be a safe option for Snowden’s Angels—and in Supun’s case, it will also separate him forever from Keana, his biological daughter with Rodel and half-sister to Sethumdi and Dinath. With Hong Kong in turmoil, and Canada headed towards elections, this may be the last chance for Canada and its current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to grant these asylum seekers safe haven.

Snowden’s Angels are running out of time.