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The Refugees Who Helped Snowden Escape Hong Kong Are Stuck in a Living Hell

The people who housed the NSA leaker say they're being targeted for helping him by the people and agencies supposed to be protecting them.

This article was originally published in German on Motherboard Germany and has been translated into English.

USB sticks and encrypted hard drives containing top-secret slides stolen from the NSA littered a room in the Mira luxury hotel in Hong Kong. Edward Snowden was joined by two journalists from The Guardian and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras with her camera. He prepared everything so well.

When Snowden gave a face and a name to the revelations of mass NSA surveillance in June 2013, he didn't spare a detail, except: where would he go now, and how would he get there?

Snowden's face was flickering over screens around the globe when Hong Kong-based human rights lawyer Robert Tibbo rang in the early hours of the morning. Snowden, the man on all channels, was stuck in his hotel, hunted by everybody. Tibbo did not think for long. There was only one place where he could hide him.

A race against time began, like something out of a spy novel. Despite the prominence of the Snowden case, the locations where he sought refuge immediately following his famous video interview would remain secret for over three years, until being unmasked in the National Post in September 2016.

For Tibbo, there was only one place where he could bring this unusual client. He helped Snowden to escape undetected from the Mira hotel to the city's slums, where many of his clients lived. Snowden would remain there for about two weeks, only leaving his hideout to board a plane to Moscow in a cloak-and-dagger operation.

In those two weeks in Hong Kong, only eight people knew where Snowden really was: His lawyer Tibbo, and the refugees Ajith, Vanessa, Supun, Nadeeka, and three kids. Without them, Snowden might not have made it through those days in June.

While the world was busy admiring Snowden for his courage, seven individuals risked their lives to care for him. The people who gave him shelter understood his situation, because they were refugees too.

Despite the fact that thousands of people around the world sympathized with the incredible story, the situation of the refugees in Hong Kong has not improved—quite the contrary. For years now, authorities there have turned the lives of the four adults and their three children who helped Snowden into hell.

"I was worried about accidentally dragging people down with me," Snowden admitted in an interview with Canada's National Post last year.

As it turns out, this fear was not unwarranted. In the past weeks, Motherboard spoke to the refugees and Snowden's lawyer Tibbo, to find out what's changed since they became known through an investigation of the German Handelsblatt and the National Post. They describe a situation that has deteriorated significantly.

"We fight for the rights of refugees worldwide. I want a good future for all of them, not just us."

The stories of these refugees provide insight into the often forgotten abyss of global refugee policy: More than 300 pages of documents that Motherboard obtained show how Hong Kong is failing refugees who fled persecution and torture in their home countries.

Hong Kong has outsourced the care for refugees to an organization that is headquartered in Geneva. The organization, International Social Services, operates in more than 120 countries globally. The local branch is called International Social Services Hong Kong Branch (ISSHK). It is the most important point of contact for refugees, and an intermediary between them and the Hong Kong government.

But interviews with the refugees and Tibbo—who is now acting as their lawyer—in addition to independent reports on their welfare, reveal the organization and officials have not provided them adequate care, nor viable economic opportunities. 

In an emailed statement responding to these allegations, ISSHK said "due to privacy concern, no comments will be made on individual cases," but denied any mistreatment or punitive actions toward refugees based on "alleged interaction / assistance given to Mr. Edward Snowden."

Snowden's story is important, but it has been written about a thousand times. Here is the story of the people who housed him, in their own words:

Supun, Nadeeka and one of their children.

Supun, Nadeeka and one of their children. Image: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

SNOWDEN'S FIRST HOSTS: SUPUN AND NADEEKA
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Supun Thilina Kellapatha's way to school was littered with the heads of decapitated pupils that the police hung from fences to deter rebels. He had been a successful cricket player, but then the 32-year-old had to flee from his home in the midst of a bloody civil war. All this happened because his family supported the "wrong" political party. For the last 12 years, he's resided in Hong Kong, where he's been trying to apply for asylum.

His girlfriend Nadeeka comes from Sri Lanka too. Since the age of 18, she sewed baby clothes for Nike and Marks & Spencer, six days a week. She was stalked by an influential person with government connections, and repeatedly raped.

The couple got to know each other in Hong Kong. Both of their small children, eight months and five years old, are stateless because they were born here. After his interview with Poitras, Snowden found his first safe haven in this young family's flat. When the exhausted whistleblower showed up at their home, they gave him their only bed to sleep.

Since then, their situation has deteriorated. In the beginning of January, the small family had to rush out of their home—investigators from Sri Lanka had flown to Hong Kong to track down the two migrants. Supun spoke to Motherboard over Skype from a safe house arranged by their lawyer. Below are his answers.

Motherboard: How are you doing right now?
Supun: I do not feel safe. We need to see from day to day how to get by. My girlfriend Nadeeka is very scared. We were threatened and our attorney told us that we need to leave our home immediately. Now we move from place to place. My daughter asks when we can finally get home, and she is afraid. Also she does not understand why she is not allowed to go to school. She sees other children in school uniform on the street and would like to join them.

How was it for you to hide a whistleblower?
He impressed us all. My daughter is still asking about him. I knew already at our first meeting that he had what it takes to be a hero, he seemed to be an honest man. However, I also realized at that point his visit would not only be a risk to us but could also be an unique opportunity. Otherwise we would never be heard. So we tried not to think about the consequences.

Did you ever tell anyone that you were housing Snowden?
No. That we helped him is a secret we had to keep to ourselves for over three years. We wouldn't even tell our own family. That was tough. My parents knew that he was in Hong Kong, my brothers spoke about him during our Skype call, the people in the bus talked about Snowden. And I couldn't tell anyone, that this guy was living at my house!

Have there been any changes for you and Nadeeka since you hosted Snowden?
Snowden changed our life. Before I met him, I had almost given up on myself. One can learn a lot from Snowden. He is not promoting himself, he does not have an army behind him, he is a quiet guy. He never gave up. What he did was dangerous and he encountered fierce resistance. Still he was patient and courageous, because he knew that he is doing the right thing. And today many people are aware of this, even a film has been made about him [Oliver Stone's Snowden]. A little bit like a phoenix from the ashes. I would like to be like that too. Simply carry on, also for my family.

It's two-sided: On one hand we fear for our security and future. On the other hand this encounter gave us back our dreams and hopes.

What do you think about Snowden being in relative safety and you not?
On parting I asked him: Please, talk about our fate when you are in safety, I want to have a future. He said: "Yeah man, I'll do that for sure." And he did, so he helped me. During the last three years he remained silent, because he thought that the situation had long changed. But it did not. We are still here.

What could be done to improve your situation?
The authorities have no respect for the people from the slum. It was only after the [Snowden] film release that they understood that the world is watching, and so they had to look after us too. Of course I am scared that we will be framed and that our asylum application will be dismissed. But I am a human and I have rights—that's what I learned from Snowden and my lawyer. I do not fight with my hands, but with my rights and my words.

I am grateful, too. I would not have anything to eat, if ISSHK did not exist. I do not want to come across as ungrateful. Because of them I could live here for 12 years.

I do not want other refugees to think that we push ourselves to the fore. We want everybody to be helped. It would be nice, if we could tell that to all the refugees, also those who do not speak English or Cantonese. I want that we stay in solidarity and that no hostility arises between us. We fight for the rights of refugees worldwide. I want a good future for all of them, not just us.

What does your ideal future look like?
I know exactly what I want: to study. To stand on my own feet one day. I do not know whether that is possible in Hong Kong. But I have no place where I could go.

WHY HONG KONG IS NOT HOSPITABLE TO REFUGEES
Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China and a wealthy city, has a lousy record on the acceptance of refugees: 0.56 percent in 2016, according to The South China Morning Post. Refugees often have to wait several years or even decades before a decision is made to accept them.

"The system is incredibly unjust," Tibbo said. The decision on asylum applications is often made after a decade. Until then, refugees must not only fight for survival on a daily basis, but are also being portrayed as the root of all evil in the media—an opinion shared by numerous inhabitants of Hong Kong.

The documents Motherboard obtained illustrate an ongoing feud between the legal representatives of the refugees and ISSHK, the government contractor, which prides itself for the protection of the 12,000 refugees that call Hong Kong home. Unfortunately, reports from refugees indicate this organization doesn't care or hasn't been able to provide adequate care for many of them.

Refugees have reported electricity being turned off without warning. Their financial support can be completely cut at times, and they sometimes have nothing to eat and sometimes only rice and frozen chicken for a month.

"Refugees are marginalized to such an extent, that they are Hong Kong's own version of Untouchables."

Some of the houses in which Hong Kong houses refugees defy description. Leaking roofs, bugs, doors without locks and little space, as photos uploaded by the aid organization Vision First show.

Asked about these allegations, an ISSHK spokesperson responded to Motherboard with an emailed statement directing readers to its website and reading in part:

ISSHK strenuously denies the following allegations: that ISSHK was in breach of its obligations towards eligible non-refoulement claimants in providing sufficient humanitarian assistance in accordance with the agreement on provision of assistance for non-refoulement claimants entered with Social Welfare Department of the Hong Kong Government, and the allegation that anyone was "punished" by ISS-HK regarding the alleged interaction / assistance given to Mr. Edward Snowden. All these allegations made against ISSHK are absolutely misconceived and entirely baseless.

All queries raised by our caseworkers are related to the standard requirements for all clients when assessing their needs and assistance levels. Humanitarian assistance will be given in accordance with the current eligibility criteria.

Due to privacy concern, no comments will be made on individual cases.

If any clients are in need of urgent assistance from ISSHK, they are always welcome to reach out to their caseworkers concerned. Urgent food and shelter could be arranged to those in urgent need.

For Snowden, the hopeless situation confronted by many of refugees offered the best hiding place during his escape. Because they're often overlooked or maligned by the larger society, their dwellings—"in the middle of the city, where nobody would search," as Tibbo said—provided the ideal hideout for a wanted whistleblower.

"Refugees are marginalized to such an extent, that they are Hong Kong's own version of Untouchables," Tibbo said in a presentation at the hacker conference Chaos Communication Congress in December 2016.

When Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997, the human rights situation was not as dramatically bad as it has become today, as a recent report by Amnesty International states. Refugees in Hong Kong live in appalling conditions in slums next to landfills, on pig farms or in stuffy barracks in the city. They are strictly forbidden from working by the government. Those caught face harsh prison sentences lasting up to two years.

At the same time Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world. The Hong Kong 'cage people' gained sad fame a couple of years ago: people without papers and work, living in small cages for up to 1500 Euros (about $1580 USD) a month.

The ISSHK does not want to show contracts of what little help it promises refugees, but on its website, the conditions are laid out in detail: "The services [...] cover all basic needs regarding food, transport and accommodation," it reads. The documents we obtained clearly show that this is not always true.

Tibbo, who has managed hundreds of cases for refugees, draws a sobering conclusion: "The ISSHK is obliged to cover the basic needs of the asylum seekers. But the authorities have shown that it is okay for them if refugees starve to death."

The refugees and their lawyer.

From left: Sri Lankan refugee Ajith Puspa, Filipino refugee Vanessa Rodel, Sri Lankan refugee Supun Thilina Kellapatha, and lawyer Robert Tibbo. Image: ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images

THE BODYGUARD: AJITH PUSPA
Ajith Puspa had good reason to flee Sri Lanka. In his home country he was repeatedly abused by supervisor in the army, then jailed and tortured by military police when he tried to flee. Severely injured, he managed to escape nonetheless. But that was only the beginning of an odyssey that until today has not yet led him to a safe home.

After escaping Sri Lanka, Ajith's intended destination was Canada. But his trafficker abandoned him halfway. Now he has been stuck for 12 years in a room without windows in Hong Kong, waiting to know whether he will be granted asylum.

"I am scared."

His experience as a former soldier qualified him to be Snowden's bodyguard in June 2013. It was Ajith who picked the American whistleblower up from the UN refugee organization, where he had hastily filed an application, after slipping out of his hotel. Ajith was responsible for transferring Snowden from hideout to hideout.

Ajith believes someone is watching him. Since his identity became known publicly, he said he's been followed in the street. Below is his conversation with Motherboard:

Motherboard: Did you have problems with the authorities after it became known that you hosted Snowden?
Ajith: Unfortunately, yes. Recently, I lost my wallet. My card with my monthly balance for food on it was in there. I immediately went to the police and took the loss report to the ISSHK. My case manager, who had previously praised me exuberantly for helping Snowden, was suddenly ice cold. He said that he would not replace the card, not then and not in the future, and that I should have taken better care.

"How many days do I need to manage without? How should I eat something?" I asked. He offered me some cans of emergency rations, but they are for new arrivals, when they are extremely malnourished. I did not take them. It would have been food for only two days anyway.

What means do you have to defend yourself against such treatment?
For a refugee it is hard to make any claims or to be heard at all. From previous problems I already knew to file a formal complaint on the same day, so that it is being taken into account at all. So I wrote one immediately. But the ISSHK did not even accept it, when I wanted to deliver it [ Editor's note: the dated complaint has been seen by Motherboard ].

Why not?
It was written in my mother tongue, Sinhalese. My English is not so good. They sent me away with the justification that I would have to hire a translator, otherwise I could forget about my concern straight away. Of course I would have to pay this translator myself. But I could not do that. I do not even have enough money for a copy.

What happened then?
Thanks to my lawyer, and because of some media reports they issued a new card three weeks later. They potentially felt under pressure, but gave me a letter, in which a consortium of lawyers threatens that they would not issue me a card ever again in case of another loss. [Editor's note: This letter of intimidation has been seen by Motherboard.]

Ajith's lawyer can only shake his head. "I do not understand this," Tibbo said. "Why does an allegedly non-profit organization with 20 lawyers fight against a vulnerable refugees and goes to great length to deny him what little he needs to survive, which to provide it is bound by contract?" That is indeed a good question, to which the ISSHK has not provided an answer to Motherboard.

Meanwhile Ajith continues to fight for his rights. At a later appointment, a clerk told him that he should present all receipts of the food bought during a month, or otherwise they would block his card. "You are certainly not doing that!" said Tibbo, visibly angry, during our Skype interview. "It does not concern them what you eat!"

"But I am scared," said Ajith quietly.

Lawyer Robert Tibbo stands behind his refugee clients.

Lawyer Robert Tibbo stands behind his refugee clients. Image: Jayne Russle

THE LAWYER: ROBERT TIBBO
The refugees are not the only ones being targeted; their lawyer's life is also being made difficult. "My wife says, 'they would like to see me dead,'" Tibbo said.

Whether he means this literally or as a metaphor isn't quite clear. But it's obvious the government has no problem drowning the lawyer in work.

According to the documents Motherboard obtained, the government has reactivated 30 of his cases between September and October 2014, many of which had rested for years, "and exactly at the time when I had left the country for a short holiday," Tibbo tells Motherboard during a meeting in Hamburg.

Suddenly, the formerly lethargic government demands an immediate reaction from the lawyer at all fronts: documents need to be handed in, letters need to be written, dossiers need to be read, appointments need to be met and deadlines kept. Otherwise, his clients are threatened with immediate deportation.

Something similar happened after our meeting at Hamburg's Hacker Congress between Christmas and New Year's Eve 2016. "As I returned from Germany, I found a letter. It concerned Supun and Nadeeka, and the letter threatened both with immediate deportation, should I not file comprehensive documents. With the deadline of one day," said a tired-looking Tibbo over Skype, after his return flight from Germany.

Filipino refugee Vanessa Rodel reads to her 4-year-old daughter.

Image: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

THE SINGLE PARENT LIVING BESIDE A BROTHEL: VANESSA RODEL
Vanessa Mae Rodel is from the Philippines and has worked as a maid in Hong Kong for while. When she returned to her home country, she was kidnapped and raped. Only years later, she escaped back to Hong Kong. She had lost her job in the meantime. Together with her 4-year-old daughter Keana and her mother, she's been waiting for asylum in a small apartment in Hong Kong—for 14 years.

"'Oh God,' I thought, 'the most wanted man in the world is in my apartment!' But I would do it again."

As for protecting Snowden in those early days, "I did not hesitate for a second," Vanessa told Motherboard via Skype—even though she had no clue who her lawyer had in tow, when he showed up with a nervous young man in front of her door one day. "When he asked me to buy a newspaper the next day, I figured it out. 'Oh God,' I thought, 'the most wanted man in the world is in my apartment!' But I would do it again."

Can you tell me how you are doing?
Not so well. I am not safe at home. Right next to my apartment is a brothel. My daughter is five and she hears everything through the thin walls. Also, completely strange men are coming up here day and night and do some kind of business. And my electricity provider demands payment of 7,000 Hong Kong Dollars (about $900 USD), which I do not have.

How did that happen?
My former landlord misappropriated the money that he receive from the ISSHK. My case manager treated me really badly, since she learned that I helped Snowden. They cancelled all of my support, which me, my little daughter and my mother rely on to survive.

Why do you think these things are linked?
After reports came out, I was called in to the ISSHK. My case manager downright interrogated me. She asked: "How long did you hide Snowden?" I answered that unfortunately I could not tell her that, and that she should contact my lawyer. Since then, I haven't received anything anymore, under various pretexts.

I asked the ISSHK to help me move, because I really want to leave this flat. Not only is there this brothel, but journalists have found out where I live. They can be really intrusive and disrespectful, and sometimes they just turn up in my kitchen. I really do not feel safe there.  

What did the authorities say?
My case manager saw that other people had started a donation campaign for us on the internet. She said: "You have a GoFundeMe page. You're famous! You don't need us anymore." Now, I do not get money anymore for my daughter and me, I have debt, and I cannot work. Certainly, I cannot go back to my home country. Our lives are at stake. I do not know how it will go from here.

THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE
The story of these three refugee families are not singular cases, but typical for the treatment that asylum seekers face in Hong Kong. Even a UN committee strongly condemns human rights violations on the island.

Hong Kong "presents all asylum seekers as exploiters of the system of the start," reads the most recent, confidential report of the UN committee against torture, that Motherboard obtained.

UN Humans Rights Committee Against Torture

"The committee notes with concern [...] that refugees are being denied access to legal work, what forced them to live below poverty line off charity for a long period of time."

Now a group of lawyers is trying to bring the three families to Canada. There, the refugees believe they would have better chances to be granted entry. The current Minister for Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship in President Justin Trudeau's cabinet is a former refugee himself: he fled himself from Somalia.

Or the refugees could also imagine trying their luck in Germany. Tibbo is hopeful. "Germany took in almost a million refugees, seven more should not be a problem, right?"

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Correction: An earlier version of this story said that there were articles about Edward Snowden in the  ISSHK's dossier of Vanessa when she was supposedly questioned on Snowden. In fact these articles were in Supun's dossier according to the refugees. In the earlier version it also stated that Ajith was raped in the army. In fact he was sexually abused and assaulted. We regret these errors and have updated the text accordingly.