What Happened to the Refugees Who Helped Snowden Escape Hong Kong (And It’s Not Good)*
By Alexa Erickson
In May 2013, Edward Snowden left Hawaii for Hong Kong to leak thousands of classified documents about the U.S.’s National Security Agency spy program. The former contractor for the CIA, who was the U.S.’s most wanted fugitive at the time, took shelter in the homes of Hong Kong’s impoverished refugees for twelve days before landing in Russia.
The former contractor for the CIA was hiding in a hotel room in the Kowloon district when he revealed the U.S.’s mass cyber surveillance of its allies to two Guardian journalists, and documentary-maker Laura Poitras. Where he went after that remained unknown for quite some time, but it was eventually revealed that he was taken in by at least three refugee families residing among thousands of refugees living in the wealthy city, who were, and are, unable to leave, work, or send their children to school.
Snowden’s lead lawyer during this time, Robert Tibbo, said he put Snowden in the hands of the refugees to avoid arrest.
“Nobody would dream that a man of such high profile would be placed among the most reviled people in Hong Kong,” he said. “We put him in a place where no one would look.”
For two weeks, Snowden’s whereabouts were known only by his lawyer and the refugees Ajith, Vanessa, Supun, Nadeeka, and their three kids. It is their help that allowed Snowden to get through that time in June.
And while those two weeks came and went, the livelihood of the refugees has largely gone unacknowledged. So where are they now?
For years now, the men, women, and children who housed Snowden have increasingly suffered at the hands of the authorities.
Care for the refugees is now in the hands of International Social Services, a Geneva-based organization, with the local branch called International Social Services Hong Kong Branch (ISSHK). But the organization and its officials have allegedly failed to provide the refugees with proper care or economic opportunities.
As of January, the family who helped Snowden has been away from their home, due to pressure from Sri Lankan investigators trying to track down the two migrants.
The refugees revealed just how dire their situation continues to be in a new interview with Motherboard.
“I do not feel safe. We need to see from day to day how to get by. My girlfriend Nadeeka is very scared. We were threatened and our attorney told us that we need to leave our home immediately. Now we move from place to place. My daughter asks when we can finally get home, and she is afraid. Also she does not understand why she is not allowed to go to school. She sees other children in school uniform on the street and would like to join them.
The authorities have no respect for the people from the slum. It was only after the [Snowden] film release that they understood that the world is watching, and so they had to look after us too. Of course I am scared that we will be framed and that our asylum application will be dismissed. But I am a human and I have rights—that’s what I learned from Snowden and my lawyer. I do not fight with my hands, but with my rights and my words.”
Supun urged that all refugees should be getting the help they need, not just the ones capable of being heard because they speak English or Cantonese.
“I want that we stay in solidarity and that no hostility arises between us. We fight for the rights of refugees worldwide. I want a good future for all of them, not just us.”
Hong Kong has a bad track record when it comes to accepting refugees: 0.56% in 2016. Refugees typically wait several years to decades to hear a decision on their acceptance.
“The system is incredibly unjust,” Tibbo explained. During this waiting time, refugees fight for survival daily, while also being portrayed as ‘the problem’ in the media.
Though ISSHK claims to hold the protection of refugees in Hong Kong to high standards, there are far too many reports from refugees that suggest otherwise. Their electricity has been turned off; their financial support has been cut off; they have nothing to eat.
“The ISSHK is obliged to cover the basic needs of the asylum seekers. But the authorities have shown that it is okay for them if refugees starve to death,” concludes Tibbo.
With so many words to be said about Snowden, there are many, many more to say about the livelihoods of the refugees that helped him in those two weeks in 2013.