In May 2013, Edward Snowden left Hawaii for Hong Kong to leak thousands of classified documents about the US’s National Security Agency spy program. The former contractor for the CIA, who was the US’s most wanted fugitive at the time, took shelter in the homes of Hong Kong’s impoverished refugees for twelve days before landing in Russia.
The first part of the story is widely known, especially in Hong Kong. For more than two weeks, Snowden was holed up in a fancy hotel room in the Kowloon district, where he exposed the US’s mass cyber surveillance of its allies to two Guardian journalists, and documentary-maker Laura Poitras, who later won an Oscar for her record of their meetings.
But where he went after leaving the hotel has remained a mystery until reports today (Sept. 7) in Canada’s National Post, the New York Times, and Germany’s Handelsblatt were published. Snowden was taken in by at least three refugee families, who are among Hong Kong’s thousands of refugees who live in the wealthy city in a miserable state of limbo, unable to leave, work, or get their children an education. Their pleas for asylum are mostly ignored by the city government.
Refugees described a shell-shocked, shaken man. Two shared their only bedroom with him.
Snowden was using his computer “all day, all night,” Bondalian Rodel, a Filipino refugee who housed him, said. He “stayed in the room all the time” said Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, who fled Sri Lanka after years of systemic rape. She had to force him to come out to shower when she wanted to clean the room.
Snowden mostly lived on McDonald’s and cakes and other sweets from his lawyer’s office, often delivered with USB ports embedded inside them, the National Post reported. None of these refugees realized Snowden was famous, much less a wanted man, when they took him in, they said. They live in tiny run-down apartments with cracked walls, and windowless closet-sized room. A National Post reporter who visited Nandeeka’s 150 square foot apartment wrote:
Children’s clothes hang to dry over barbed wire blowing in the dirty air. The squalor is visible as open garbage rots in stairwells and in open pits that were once courtyards. The stench, aided by the unbearable heat and humidity, is overpowering.
Robert Tibbo, Snowden’s lead lawyer in Hong Kong, said he stashed the American whistleblower in the refugees’ homes in poor neighborhoods between June 10 and 21 to avoid US arrest, while applying for refugee status for Snowden at the UN’s local office.
“Nobody would dream that a man of such high profile would be placed among the most reviled people in Hong Kong,” the Canadian lawyer told National Post. “We put him in a place where no one would look.” He explained to the New York Times that his asylum-seeking clients decided to speak out about hiding Snowden to pressure the Hong Kong government to get them asylum after years of waiting.
Hong Kong has about 11,000 registered asylum seekers—and several thousand more who are unregistered. Often from South and Southeast Asia, they arrive in Hong Kong only to find they can’t work, get asylum, or even leave the city, thanks to draconian local laws and international treaties and Hong Kong’s failure to sign the UN convention on refugees, as Matt Tinoco explained earlier in Quartz. “We live here worse than dogs. I cannot believe that a city so rich offers so little to those who come to it looking for help,” a Pakistan refugee explained to Tinoco.
Snowden left $200 in cash for at least two of the refugee families interviewed who housed him, and reportedly sent $1,000 later to each family after their roles in his escape were included in a Hollywood movie being directed by Oliver Stone.