Edward Snowden

Treatment of refugees in Hong Kong is criminal, says Edward Snowden

The US whistle-blower was sheltered by three groups of asylum seekers during his short stay in Hong Kong in 2013 before he fled to Russia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 December, 2016, 10:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 December, 2016, 10:41am

US intelligence whistle-blower Edward Snowden has described the treatment of refugees in Hong Kong as “criminal”.

Snowden was sheltered by three groups of asylum seekers when he was in the city for about two weeks back in 2013, after he had fled the United States. In an interview with the Canadian news outlet Ricochet Media, he described the poverty, “discrimination and repression” suffered by protection claimants living in Hong Kong.

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The former National Security Agency contractor criticised the fact that asylum seekers were not allowed to work in the city, saying that they were left “hungry and destitute” as they waited for their claims to be processed.

While Snowden was on the run, after leaking classified documents which showed the extent of electronic spying by the United States and other governments, he was housed by a Filipino family as well as a family and a man from Sri Lanka, who are still protection claimants in the city.

“Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world, yet I saw refugees struggling through days whose poverties were punctuated by discrimination and repression,” Snowden said.

“It seems beyond imagination that a government could deny people the right to work for a wage while also refusing them money to eat, instead providing food provisions that were wholly insufficient to survive on and often spoiled and out of date, but that’s how the system worked then,” he observed.

Food provisions have since been replaced by coupons. Protection claimants in the city currently receive a monthly housing allowance of HK$1,500 per adult, supermarket coupons worth HK$1,200 for food, transport expenses averaging HK$200 per person and HK$300 for utilities.

“Today food coupons and food debit cards with a limited value per month are provided to the asylum seekers, but again it is far below what is required to survive on. So asylum seekers in Hong Kong are still left hungry and destitute today,” he said.

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Snowden knows that he could have been one of the 10,815 protection claimants, who are currently waiting to have their claims processed. They often remain in limbo for several years.

When the former CIA contractor was in the city, he applied as an asylum seeker with the UN refugee agency. “He was given several options and he thought it was in his best interest to leave Hong Kong,” Robert Tibbo, Snowden’s lawyer in Hong Kong, told the South China Morning Post.

“In my own case, I was told it could take a decade to process an asylum claim,” Snowden recalled. “Try to imagine that, if only for a few seconds. For the next 10 years, you’ll be arrested if you dare to work, but you’re on your own to find sufficient food, to pay the full rent, to pay the full utility bills,” he said.

“How long could you last? There is a kind of law which is itself criminal, and this is a clear example,” Snowden said.

The whistle-blower, who currently lives in exile in Russia, criticised the fact that people whose lives were already defined by “disaster and lack“ were demonised by some circles. “If a refugee works to meet their own very basic needs for food, rent and utilities, basic clothing, they’re a criminal – at best stealing a job,” he said. “If they don’t work, as the law requires, they are a leech; an amoral layabout looking for a handout they neither earned nor deserve and they are left destitute.”

Such logic, he noted, “is diseased” and “incapable of imagining a universe in which a refugee is not a malignant force of nature, but a desperate person who more often than not recovers from the outrages of misfortune to support not only themselves, but contribute to society.”

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Snowden said he did not believe in heroes. “We’re flawed. But we are never further than a single decision away from a heroic act. Those moments are real ... That’s what I learned in Hong Kong, when these incredible people didn’t simply say, ‘I’m sorry, I have a family’, and close the door in my face.”

“No one would have blamed them, but they knew better. They’d been through the bad times ... When someone in trouble knocked on their door, they answered, and it might have saved a man’s life.”

He urged people to take action and help asylum seekers in Hong Kong. “Now they’re knocking on yours. Be the person that matters. Don’t wait for a politician to do the right thing, make them do it,” he said.

Lawyers and campaigners in Hong Kong have called for the screening mechanism to be improved and asylum seekers’ basic needs to be met in full.

Last month, the Hong Kong-based Refugee Union handed a petition to the government urging it to improve social welfare support and better protect the rights of the 559 refugee children in the city.

According to Ricochet Media, Snowden’s interview was conducted by encrypted relay through Tibbo, who provided legal advice while he was in Hong Kong.

The Canadian barrister said he wanted the three refugee families to be resettled in another country as soon as possible.