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Refugees Who Harbored Snowden Seek Asylum In Canada


Edward Snowden was in Hong Kong when the first reporting based on his national security leaks was published in the summer of 2013. And though he has long since left the city, Snowden's stay has left his shadow on the families he sought shelter with. They are refugees from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. And like many asylum seekers in Hong Kong, they face difficult living conditions and long odds of getting help. And now their request for asylum has been officially denied by Hong Kong's government. And their association with Snowden appears to be limiting their options going forward. A team of attorneys is petitioning the Canadian government to allow them to relocate there. One of those attorneys, Michael Simkin, joins me now. Welcome.


GONYEA: So tell us about these families. Who are they?

SIMKIN: So we're talking about four adults. We have three Sri Lankans. Supun, Nadeeka are a couple. Ajith is a single male. And we also have a Filipina. Her name is Vanessa. And they have three children whose names I won't say out loud.

GONYEA: OK. And how did they come to help Edward Snowden?

SIMKIN: At the time that Mr. Snowden was in Hong Kong, they were already asylum seekers established in Hong Kong. And he ended up staying with different people during, I believe, a two-week period before he left the territory.

GONYEA: Were they harboring him, or did they just happen to be in the same place?

SIMKIN: So, I mean, harboring, I think, has a lot of different connotations. There's nothing actually illegal about what they were doing. At all times that he was in Hong Kong, he was there lawfully. I mean, they provided him with a bed. They didn't have very much to offer, to be perfectly frank. If you watch the Oliver Stone film, "Snowden," you see the kind of squalor and meager conditions that they live in. That's what they're able to afford on the stipend that asylum seekers receive in Hong Kong. And it's quite a juxtaposition with the fabulously wealthy image of this territory with bankers and business people.

GONYEA: And I understand they're up against a deadline in Hong Kong.

SIMKIN: Well, what's happening in Hong Kong is typically asylum seekers languish in a limbo situation for many years before any determination is ever made in their case. And in fact, they all had been in Hong Kong for almost a decade or more. What happened when their existence and involvement in the whole Snowden situation in Hong Kong became known is all of their claims were rejected summarily.

GONYEA: And it's because of their connection to Snowden, you believe, that this simultaneous processing and then rejection from the Hong Kong government came about?

SIMKIN: In fact, no. My impression is that the fact that these asylum seekers and the poor conditions in which they lived became public, this is shameful and disgraceful for Hong Kong. And that is what makes them a target.

GONYEA: They're trying to get to Canada. And their association with Snowden may be creating problems there?

SIMKIN: It's certainly possible. We completed all of their applications and requested urgent treatment because of their vulnerability in Hong Kong months ago. They initially told us that they were expediting the files. And then two months later, they said that they were not expediting the files. But they didn't say why. And this is why we've decided to go before the court to force the government to meet its commitment - one that our clients relied upon. And now they're at the 11th hour facing imminent detention and eventual inevitable deportation, and Canada is the last hope.

GONYEA: And what is your best guess as to what has prompted what seems like a change of heart on Canada's part?

SIMKIN: Well, it's hard not to think that the connection to Snowden has some weight in the government's decisions. It shouldn't, obviously, especially in this case, those that are sponsored-refugee applicants. I mean, we have an organization that's guaranteed their support. And so we can't help but think that maybe there's a political motivation in some kind of foreign policy issue.

GONYEA: If they aren't allowed to go to Canada, what will happen to them and their children?

SIMKIN: They'll be detained eventually in Hong Kong. And their children will be put into foster care until such time as the appeals are completed at which point they will be removed from Hong Kong and sent back to either Sri Lanka or the Philippines.

GONYEA: That's Michael Simkin, an attorney and part of the group for the refugees. He's petitioning the Canadian government to accept the refugee families who helped Edward Snowden while Snowden was in Hong Kong. Thank you for joining us.

SIMKIN: Thank you, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEON INDIAN SONG, "ERA EXTRANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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