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Asylum seekers who sheltered Edward Snowden for a period in 2013 stand outside of Hong Kong's immigration department during a press conference in Hong Kong, China, May 15, 2017.  © 2017 AP Images

(New York) – The Canadian government should fast-track its consideration of the refugee claims of seven people who sheltered US National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden before he left Hong Kong in 2013.

The Hong Kong government has sent the adult asylum seekers detention notices, indicating that they could soon be deported to countries where they would face a credible risk of persecution and abuse. Their very young children face possible persecution if returned, or separation from their parents if the adults are detained and deported.

“The compassionate act of letting Edward Snowden into their homes should never have landed these families in peril,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Hong Kong has failed to protect these families, who fear being returned to abusers who await them in the countries they fled, where they say they were persecuted and tortured.”

Prior to boarding the flight that ultimately stranded him in Russia, Snowden hid among others who sought asylum in Hong Kong, and was introduced to these families by their mutual lawyer, Robert Tibbo. The families hosted Snowden for short periods. They have said they willingly helped the young man who, like themselves, was seeking safety as a refugee. A US demand for his arrest in Hong Kong was not recognized and disclosed until after he had lawfully left the territory.

Hong Kong for years has accepted exceptionally few refugees, fewer than one percent of claims. Because of the considerable risk they could be returned, the asylum seekers who helped Snowden have also sought protection from Canada, where they have been privately sponsored for refugee resettlement. The Canadian government is considering their cases, but has indicated through the consulate in Hong Kong that they are not expedited. The average waiting time for determinations on such applications is more than four years, – far too long should Hong Kong seek their prompt deportation to their home countries.

Each of the adults who sheltered Snowden – a single man, a couple with two children, presently aged 5 and 1, and a single mother with a 5-year-old child – allege that they experienced torture and ill-treatment in their home countries of Sri Lanka and the Philippines before fleeing to Hong Kong. The three children were born out of wedlock in Hong Kong and are stateless. Hong Kong does not recognize the family status of these parents and children, and if the parents are detained, there is a risk the children will be separated from them and placed in foster care, causing them further insecurity and trauma.

Although the asylum seekers and their lawyer kept their role secret, the director Oliver Stone depicted this episode in his movie Snowden, and reporters uncovered their identities and began seeking them out for interviews. At that point, they and their lawyer acknowledged their role and granted media interviews.

The publicity brought their plight to global attention, but appears to have led the Hong Kong government to move rapidly to detain and deport them after years of delay in hearing their asylum claims. There is no evidence that these families present any risk of flight, and they should not be separated from their children, Human Rights Watch said.

Once their connection with Snowden became known, the asylum seekers say, Hong Kong authorities repeatedly questioned them, to find out what they knew about Snowden, and denied them benefits for their basic living needs when they referred such questions to their lawyer.

Their situation became even more precarious when it was discovered that, in November and December 2016, Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department officers had been searching for several of them in Hong Kong, questioning other asylum seekers and showing them their photographs. The Hong Kong government did little to protect the asylum seekers in response and has not responded to expressions of concern for their safety by human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.

The families are now preparing appeals to their rejection of asylum by the Hong Kong Immigration Department, which is currently trying to remove their lawyer from the cases.

“Canada should move quickly on these cases and safeguard these people from the prospect of detention and deportation,” PoKempner said. “No one should have to risk return to torture or persecution because they opened their door to another who feared the same. Canada has a unique opportunity to provide these people and their children both safety and a future.”  

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