Four refugees who sheltered Snowden find sanctuary in Canada

Ms Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis with her son Dinath, and Mr Supun Thilina Kellapatha with his lawyer in Ontario, Canada, on Sept 28, 2021.
Ms Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis with her son Dinath, and Mr Supun Thilina Kellapatha with his lawyer in Ontario, Canada, on Sept 28, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

MONTREAL (AFP) - Four Sri Lankan refugees who hid Edward Snowden in their tiny Hong Kong apartments when he was on the run after exposing US National Security Agency spying landed in Canada on Tuesday (Sept 28) where they were granted asylum, ending years in limbo.

Mr Supun Thilina Kellapatha and Ms Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis touched down in Toronto with their children Sethumdi and Dinath and were due to go on to Montreal to "start their new lives", non-profit For the Refugees said in a statement.

The family was part of a group of seven poverty-stricken refugees from Sri Lanka and the Philippines living in Hong Kong who nonetheless agreed to shelter Mr Snowden after his bombshell revelations in 2013.

Ms Vanessa Rodel, from the Philippines, and her daughter Keana were granted asylum in Canada in 2019 with the help of For the Refugees, which has lobbied Canada to take in the others, arguing that they faced persecution both in their homeland and in Hong Kong because they helped Mr Snowden.

Mr Kellapatha's family had faced deportation after initial refugee claims in Hong Kong were rejected.

He spoke of his relief at finally finding a place of permanent sanctuary. "I'm so happy this is over. I'm so happy to be going to Canada," the South China Morning Post quoted him as saying before he and his family boarded a plane in Hong Kong.

"We have a new life, our children now have a future. We're so grateful right now. Really, I am speechless... The kids are so happy. I'm so grateful."

Mr Snowden welcomed the news of the family's arrival in Canada. "This is the best news I've heard in a long, long time," he wrote on Twitter.

"We need to bring one more home before we can say we're done, but I cannot thank you enough for bringing us this far," he added.

A seventh member of the group, Sri Lankan army deserter Ajith Pushpakumara, remains in Hong Kong, where "his safety is still at risk", according to For the Refugees, which renewed its call for Ottawa to expedite his asylum claim.

"We are happy with the end result - at least for six of the seven," For the Refugees president Marc-Andre Seguin told AFP.

"Although we welcome the arrival and start of a new chapter in the lives of this family of four, we cannot ignore that Ajith has stayed behind," he said. "We are asking that Canada (again) do the right thing and admit the last of Snowden's Guardian Angels before it's too late."

Mr Robert Tibbo, Mr Pushpakumara's lawyer in Canada, said his client has a pending application with Canadian immigration. "The difficulty here is that Ajith is all alone right now and he's questioning why his case is taking so long," he told AFP.

Mr Tibbo himself left Hong Kong in 2017, saying that he feared for his safety after representing the Snowden refugees in the Chinese business hub.

Former contractor of US National Security Agency Edward Snowden during his interview presented via video link at the New Knowledge educational online forum in Moscow on Sept 2, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Snowden revealed thousands of classified documents exposing vast United States surveillance put in place after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. He ended up stranded in Hong Kong as media outlets published his findings, initially in a hotel, surrounded by journalists from around the globe.

The group of refugees agreed to shelter him for about two weeks until he could fly to Russia, where he now lives.

Their role in the saga was revealed only in a 2016 Oliver Stone film about Mr Snowden, which left them in "constant fear and worry" in Hong Kong, said For the Refugees. It also highlighted the plight of refugees in Hong Kong, which has one of the lowest asylum approval rates in the world.

Only around 1 per cent of claims are granted and the tiny fraction of claimants who are approved must get ultimate sanctuary in a third country.

While cases drag on for years, asylum applicants are not allowed to work and receive a stipend of just HK$3,000 (S$523) a month in what is one of the world's least affordable cities.