Edward Snowden

Asylum seekers who sheltered Snowden in Hong Kong at risk of being deported, lawyer warns

Lawyer misses deadline to file claim forms for Sri Lankan family after 30 of his cases that had been in limbo are suddenly reactivated by the government

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 December, 2016, 6:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 December, 2016, 10:03pm

The Sri Lankan asylum seekers who sheltered the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong might be at risk of detention and deportation as their lawyer was not able to meet a final deadline imposed by the Immigration Department to file documents.

Robert Tibbo, a Canadian barrister who provided legal advice to Snowden when he was in the city in 2013, said 30 of his cases had been reactivated at the same time after at least two years of inactivity, leaving him unable to cope with the workload given his other work commitments.

“I understand I have been particularly targeted. They all know I have 30 cases that have been held in limbo and now this happens,” Tibbo said.

“To me this is a clear-cut strategy by the Hong Kong government to defeat my client cases by avoiding even looking at the merits of them. It is a grossly unfair procedure.”

This comes as a group of lawyers in Montreal is campaigning for the asylum seekers who helped Snowden in Hong Kong to be resettled in Canada. They housed the former US intelligence contractor for about two weeks back in 2013, shortly after he leaked classified documents that showed the extension of mass online surveillance by the American and other governments.

Tibbo was first asked on October 12 to file supplementary claim forms, in which additional grounds for claim could be stated for Supun Thilina Kellapatha and Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, a couple from Sri Lanka. The final deadline was December 14.

The lawyer said he also missed the deadline for their two children.

Papers filed by protection claimants usually include their personal history, the threats faced in their home countries and updates on their nations’ security situation.

Tibbo’s request to file all documents by the end of January was rejected by the Immigration Department.

An immigration officer said in a letter about Supun’s case that the duty’s lawyer schedule was “not a reasonable excuse for any further delay in the submission” of supplementary claim forms.

The officer continued: “We consider ample time and reasonable opportunities have been given to him [the claimant] to complete the supplementary claim forms and to seek advice from his legal representative.”

Failing to do so, the officer noted, “his claim will be treated as withdrawn”.

Tibbo said that in such cases the government had the right to arrest and deport the claimant.

Vanessa Mae Rodel, a Filipino asylum seeker who has a four-year-old daughter, will soon be in a similar situation.

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

According to the lawyer, the only one who is not at risk of being deported in the near future is Ajith Pushpakumara, a former Sri Lankan soldier, as his supplementary claim form had already been submitted.

A spokesman for the Immigration Department said he would not comment on individual cases. However, he noted that “it is the duty of a claimant to comply with every requirement, procedure and condition (including any time limit) ... specified by his case officer”.

He said “claimants will not be removed/deported to a risk country until their non-refoulement claims have been finally determined as unsubstantiated or withdrawn”.

Marc-André Séguin, who is involved in the campaign in Canada along with two other lawyers Francis Tourigny and Michael Simkin, called for an urgent solution. “These families find themselves in a very exceptional circumstance … I am not looking to make a precedent here, I want the result. I want them out of Hong Kong, safely, and in a country where they can be protected,” he said.

Séguin did not disclose the legal moves that the group was considering.

“If there is a political will and a will within the community to bring these families to Canada, there is a multitude of ways to see that happening,” he said. “We are looking at a number of them and we are hopeful that government officials will do the same.”

The Canadian government has not commented on the chances that the three groups of individuals who helped the former National Security Agency contractor when he was in Hong Kong have of being resettled in Canada.

A communications adviser for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told the Post that refugees can go through two main programmes: the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program for people seeking protection from outside Canada; and the in-Canada Asylum Program for those making claims within Canada.

The three types of resettlement are: government assisted refugees, who are usually referred by organisations like the UN Refugee Agency; privately sponsored refugees, meaning that someone agrees to provide financial and other support for them over one year; and “blended visa office-referred refugees”, in which the government and a private sponsor support a refugee who was referred by the UN Refugee Agency.

As of December 4, according to official statistics, 36,393 Syrian refugees had been resettled in Canada – among them, 13,372 were privately sponsored.