July 17, 2017 11:00 am
Updated: July 17, 2017 11:44 am

Canadian government accused of abandoning families that sheltered Edward Snowden

Ajith Pushpa Kumara, Vanessa Mae Rodel and her daughter Keana, Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis and her son Dinath and daughter Sethmundi Kellapatha, and Supun Thilina Kellapatha pose outside Hong Kong's immigration department in May 2017.

AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Lawyers representing three families who once sheltered U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong say they are taking the federal government to court to find out why their clients are not being granted emergency asylum in Canada.

The legal saga surrounding the seven people, three of whom are children under six, took another turn on Monday as their legal team claimed federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen recently reversed his position relative to the families, deciding against using his ministerial power to expedite their Canadian asylum claims.

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That decision, said lawyer Michael Simkin, came as a total shock after Hussen’s office “expressed clearly” earlier this spring that the files would be sped up.

“The minister has not answered our calls to explain the change of position,” Simkin said, leaving the legal team with no choice but to call on a federal court judge to make sure Hussen “keeps his word.”

READ MORE: Families that sheltered Edward Snowden seek refuge in Canada

Time is running out for their clients, he added. Without the fast-track option, it will take years for their claims to be processed.

“It seems like the families’ connection to Snowden has made them radioactive,” Simkin said. “We don’t know if the U.S. has put any kind of pressure on Canada and we don’t know why minister Hussen has reversed his position.”

Global News has reached out to Hussen’s office for comment. The minister has never made any public comment on the matter, citing privacy concerns, and has never promised publicly to speed up the claims process.

‘Guardian angels’

Snowden, a former U.S. government worker who leaked classified files, stayed with the families at various points in 2013 while on the run from authorities. They all shared the same lawyer, and the families say they have never regretted hiding Snowden in their homes.

The high-profile whistleblower is living in exile in Russia to avoid charges in the U.S. that could land him in prison for up to 30 years. The identities of his so-called “guardian angel” families were revealed last year, something that they claim has seriously endangered them.

WATCH: Edward Snowden warns against government attempts to silence journalists

An initial attempt to allow the families to remain in Hong Kong failed in May when the government there rejected their asylum applications. An appeal of that decision was being heard on Monday but is reportedly unlikely to succeed.

If it fails, the families will be obligated to report to a detention centre on Aug. 1, and after that, they will likely be deported back to their home countries of Sri Lanka and the Philippines, where they say they face persecution and even death.

Recognizing that the Hong Kong asylum claim might fail, their lawyers also formally requested asylum in Canada in April, asking Hussen to fast-track the families’ applications.

Canada’s immigration system allows the applicants to bypass screening by the UN’s refugee agency, saving time and making this country one of the few options open to the families.

“Canada, today, is truly their last and only hope,” Simkin said.

The four lawyers representing the families, three of whom are based in Canada, have set up a not-for-profit organization called For the Refugees dedicated to helping the four adults and three children find a place to settle permanently.

Simkin said travel, living and other expenses will be covered privately, meaning that bringing the families to Canada will place no financial burden on Canadian taxpayers.

“All of their needs will be provided for entirely by private donations and our organization.”

The families include:

  • A mother, Van­essa Mae Rodel of the Philippines, and her young daughter.
  • Ajith Pushpakumara, a former soldier from Sri Lanka.
  • A family of four from Sri Lanka, identified as Supun Thilina Kellapatha, his wife Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis and their children.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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