Over 50 asylum seekers and campaigners marched to the US embassy on Sunday calling for a pardon of whistleblower Edward Snowden, who exposed the extent of surveillance by the US National Security Agency in 2013 by leaking classified documents.

After his escape from the city, it was revealed that refugees in Hong Kong sheltered Snowden while he was hiding in Hong Kong. He stayed with three refugee families, who helped him and fed him.

Afterwards, Snowden told a Canadian newspaper: “Imagine the world’s most wanted dissident brought to your door. Would you open it? They didn’t even hesitate, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”

Sally Tang, chair of the Socialist Action group, which organised the rally, said it was a good opportunity to bring attention to the plight of refugees in Hong Kong.

Photo: Socialist Action.

“It turned out that it was not the Hong Kong government that helped him. It was actually these very oppressed people. By using this event – even Snowden, someone who is so well-known, supports asylum seekers – we hope to put pressure on the government and tell it that we support Hong Kong’s refugees and hope that Hong Kong people will support the refugees and pay attention to their situation,” she said.

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“Because of Snowden, Hong Kong refugees became international news,” said Sabir, one of the founding members of the Refugee Union Hong Kong, which was partly responsible for bringing people out to the rally. Although he admits that he doesn’t know the details of the case, he said he attended the rally “to support Snowden as he supports refugees.”

Baneare, an asylum seeker from Pakistan, said he went to the rally to support Snowden because Snowden is also a refugee.

Basheare. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

The rally’s organisers sought to bring the plight of Hong Kong’s refugees to the fore in the midst of what they called a “smear campaign” against refugees.

“The media very rarely cover issues faced by refugee,” said Tang. “The government has a campaign to smear refugees in Hong Kong by saying that they’re rapists and criminals and that they work illegally.”

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

NGO The Justice Centre noted that the Hong Kong government has shifted its tone towards refugees in the past year. “It has moved from referring to refugees in neutral terms as “non-refoulement claimants” to employing specifically ethnic terms (“non-Chinese illegal immigrant” or “NECII”), often invoking criminality,” the group wrote previously.

Leading the group in shouting “refugees are heroes” during the rally, Tang hoped to present a counter-narrative.

She said she hopes that there can be an anti-racism push in Hong Kong. “There are racist elements who are not only against refugees, but also against mainlanders. But that’s because there’s a lack of opposition,” she said.

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Sabir, a refugee from Pakistan who faces persecution for his religion back home, called for the government to change its laws to allow refugees to work. Under current laws, refugees are not permitted to work or volunteer. They are forced to rely on HK$1,500 per month for rent, HK$1,200 for food, and about HK$500 for utilities and transport.

“They don’t even cover basic needs. They don’t allow us to do work. So what can we do? … They only give us 1,500 for rent. Where can you find accommodation? I don’t think you can even find parking with that.”

“Treat us like human beings, we are not animals,” he said.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.