A group of Montreal lawyers is urging the Canadian government to help impoverished asylum-seekers in Hong Kong who say they have faced harassment for having housed whistleblower and American fugitive Edward Snowden.
The lawyers have launched a Canadian organization named For the Refugees to raise money for the families and to lobby Ottawa to give them sanctuary as they come under pressure in Hong Kong – a jurisdiction known for being tough on asylum-seekers.
Since the refugees' involvement with Mr. Snowden rose to global prominence this fall – including in scenes in a recent Oliver Stone film on the fugitive – they say they've been questioned on Mr. Snowden by welfare authorities, seen welfare benefits cut and had visits from police.
"Our first objective is to raise funds to make sure they don't have to worry about their next meal. Our second objective is to find a safe place for them," said Marc-André Séguin, an immigration specialist who is one of the three lawyers spearheading the effort in Montreal.
"Hong Kong's acceptance rate for asylum-seekers is effectively zero. When you ask these people where they want to go, they consistently say Canada."
Mr. Snowden weighed in himself on Twitter from his current sanctuary in Russia: "Reports say the refugees who sheltered me in Hong Kong have had some benefits cut in retaliation. Will Canada help?"
In 2013, Mr. Snowden leaked classified information about the U.S. National Security Agency's programs which collected private information on millions of people. He fled to Hong Kong where he hired Hong Kong immigration lawyer, former Montrealer Robert Tibbo. After a brief stay at a hotel, he spent two weeks shuttling between three refugee families who are Mr. Tibbo's clients.
While their obscurity in 2013 protected Mr. Snowden, their current prominence makes them vulnerable to abuse in Hong Kong and to inhumane treatment if they were returned to their home countries, said Mr. Tibbo. "Governments are clearly interested in every scrap of information they can get on Mr. Snowden from my clients."
Mr. Tibbo says the families did nothing wrong. Mr. Snowden had no warrant for his arrest in Hong Kong when he was hiding with the families. Officials from the International Social Services NGO which handles welfare for Hong Kong asylum seekers did not respond to a request for comment.
Vanessa Rodel, a woman from the Philippines who declined to say why she fled her home country, has lived in Hong Kong since 2010. Her four-year-old girl born in Hong Kong is stateless.
"I can't go back because something bad will happen to me, especially now with our new president," said Ms. Rodel, noting Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte's endorsement of extrajudicial killings. "I think for me he could easily shoot me. He could do anything. All I want is for me and my daughter, my family, to be safe and have freedom. And I want to work and get an education for my daughter."
The refugees also include Ajith Pushpakumara, a former Sri Lankan soldier who says he was abused by his superiors, deserted the army and was tortured after he was captured. Fellow Sri Lankan Supun Thilina Kellapatha also says he was tortured in his homeland. He is in Hong Kong with his wife and child who was born there and is also stateless.
Human Rights Watch says Sri Lanka has a recent history of arbitrary arrest and torture of returned asylum seekers.
Hong Kong is itself a difficult jurisdiction for asylum seekers. Cases languish before tribunals for a decade or more and the acceptance rate on the island is less than .5 per cent cases. Refugee claimants are not allowed to work and they receive small monthly stipends that leave them stuck in substandard housing. The cases of the people who helped Snowden have already languished in the Hong Kong system for 5-8 years with no resolution in sight.
The families weren't entirely clear on what Mr. Snowden had done in 2013 as he slept in their beds and ate their food.
"We tried to explain magnitude to the families. They said 'We understand, we understand.' They wanted to help, wanted to feel useful," Mr. Tibbo said. "Of course I feel responsible for what's happening now. Everyone else has to some extent moved on. They're still stuck."
Ms. Rodel said she started to understand what she had done when she saw Mr. Snowden's face plastered on the front pages of the local newspapers. She says she has no regrets about giving him sanctuary. "I'm really proud to have let Mr. Snowden into my home," she said.
When the refugees describe their time with Mr. Snowden, they mainly recall how worried he seemed and how he ate almost nothing but cakes.
Mr. Séguin and fellow Montreal lawyers Francis Tourigny and Michael Simkin have launched crowdfunding site to raise money along with their NGO.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Mr. Snowden in the film, is an early contributor to the effort for the refugees, Mr. Séguin said. He could not say how much money the actor has donated, citing confidentiality.
A spokesperson for Refugees, Immigration and Citizenship Canada said asylum requests can only be made at an entry point to Canada. Mr. Séguin said the long term solution is to have them settle in Canada. "There are a multitude of tools at the Canadian government's disposal to bring assistance to people in distress and bring them to Canadian soil. It's up to them to step up," he said.