Three Sri Lankan families who harboured US whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 have filed refugee claims with the Canadian government.

The lawyers involved revealed on Thursday that they have petitioned the Canadian government to accept the refugees, calling for immigration minister Ahmed Hussen to use his discretionary power to expedite the process.

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

They cited alleged visits from Sri Lankan police as a particular cause for concern. Two weeks ago, Robert Tibbo, the families’ lawyer, said that the Sri Lankan police entered Hong Kong to seek the three families out, though Sri Lankan authorities have denied it.

“It has become clear that they need to relocate to safety. It is a matter of life and death, for them and for their children,” lawyer Marc-André Séguin said.

Three separate applications were made in the past few weeks, he said.

The families include Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, her husband Supun Thilina Kellapatha with their baby boy Dinah, and 5-year-old daughter Sethumdi, Vanessa Rodel with her 5-year-old daughter Keana, and Ajith Pushpakumara, a 45-year-old ex-soldier. They met with three Canadian lawyers who have partnered with Tibbo to help them – Séguin, Francis Tourigny and Michael Simkin –  for the first time on Wednesday. 

Snowden stayed in Sham Shui Po and Kennedy Town as he sought refuge in Hong Kong. Photo: Wikicommons.

Tibbo said on Thursday that the Hong Kong police have since told them that they will not act on the visit by Sri Lankan police, as the immigration department is already investigating after the families brought their attention to it. He added that they have done everything possible to make sure the Hong Kong government is looking into the matter.

According to one of the families, their immediate family members in Sri Lanka were also questioned, harassed and threatened by authorities, demanding the addresses and telephone numbers of people who sheltered Snowden in Hong Kong. Since then, another family in Sri Lanka was contacted by the authorities, Tibbo said.

One of the refugees, Vanessa Mae Rodel, said that the ISS have questioned her over her involvement with Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong and her assistance has been cut off since November.

Marc-André Séguin. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Séguin said that, even without the threat of being taken away unlawfully by Sri Lankan authorities, there is no durable solution in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong has an effective zero per cent acceptance rate for asylum seekers, and even if they were miraculously accepted, they would still have to be relocated, and in the meantime, they would be left in limbo for several, many more years.”

“So there’s really no hope, no future,” Tibbo said.

The lawyers set up an NGO in Quebec, For the Refugees, which is collecting donations to help the families meet their basic needs in Hong Kong and aims to help them get resettled in Canada.

Hong Kong’s refugee acceptance rate is 0.6 per cent – meaning only 72 cases were found to be from 2009 to December last year. 9,981 refugees are still waiting to have their claims screened.

In Canada, cases can be prioritised for resettlement if they meet criteria including that there is “no reasonable prospect, within a reasonable period of time, of a durable solution,” meaning applicants who cannot safely return soon to their home countries, integrate into the countries where they have taken refuge, or receive a resettlement offer from another country, according to public broadcaster CBC. 

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.