As It Happens

Snowden escaped arrest with help from a Canadian and refugees in Hong Kong

After Edward Snowden, intelligence contractor, leaked details of widespread U.S. government surveillance, he became a fugitive in Hong Kong. For almost two weeks, before he fled to Moscow, a group of asylum seekers hid him in their homes in the city's slums.
Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is seen on a giant screen during a live video conference in 2014. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Edward Snowden's story is not just like a Hollywood thriller. It is one.

On Friday, the Oliver Stone-directed biopic Snowden debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival. The narrative will include new details about how the American intelligence contractor escaped arrest in Hong Kong. Snowden was in Hong Kong when he leaked details about the U.S. government's extensive cyber-spying networks. 

Edward Snowden and his Canadian lawyer, Robert Tibbo, in a hotel room in Moscow. (N.Y. Jennifer)

With the American authorities desperate to find Snowden in the Chinese city, he hid for for almost two weeks before escaping to Moscow. 

All of them, without reservation, made the decision that they wanted to help him.- Robert Tibbo, lawyer 
He did so with the help of a group of refugees living in Hong Kong's slums. They didn't know the famous fugitive. But they agreed to hide him at the urging of their lawyer — a Canadian named Robert Tibbo. 
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Edward Snowden in the Oliver Stone biopic "Snowden" being released on Friday. (Twitter)

Tibbo spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation:

Carol Off: How did you decide that you might be able to have these clients help Mr. Snowden, to hide him? 

Robert Tibbo: In working with asylum seekers and refugees for many years, these are people who are ordinary people, and at some point, there was either someone in the government, or a private individual who targeted them for one reason or another. Whether it was political opinion, or gender persecution, these people went through a process where they needed help at some point in their journey, fleeing their home countries into exile and seeking refuge. It was a simple calculation. The refugees, once they met Mr. Snowden, they recognized him. They saw him as one of them. Here is a man who is need of refuge protection, and he was going through the same experience that they had, previously. 
One of the homes where Edward Snowden hid out was in Sham Shui Po, one of the oldest and most crowded districts in Hong Kong. (Bobby Yip/REUTERS)

CO: Mr. Snowden was staying in a very good hotel before all this began, before the news was out and he had to go underground. And then he was staying in some very cramped quarters. What was his state of mind, as he hid in these various places you found for him?

RT: He was with three families, and there were three Sri Lankan adults, and one Filipino adult. In that environment, what he received was kindness and empathy. They went out of their way to support him and make sure that while he was with them, they could make him comfortable. Over that time, Mr. Snowden was feeling much better, more confident. Because this was a time when everyone was under a lot of pressure. 
Hong Kong has restrictive policies for refugee claimants, prompting a protest in April 2013. Very few are accepted and many wait years to have their applications processed. (Bobby Yip/REUTERS)

CO: But he must have been very afraid. What was he going through?

RT: Intellectually, Mr. Snowden was fine. He had made a decision of conscience, to make these disclosures. But as a human being, he was scared. When you actually face the prospect of being apprehended, and losing your liberty, possibly for the rest of your life, that's a very difficult situation. Ed was scared, but over time, with the refugee families, he gradually calmed down, and he was in a very warm safe environment. In terms of the refugees, after they knew who he was, and after they understood the gravity of the situation, all of them without reservation made the decision that they wanted to help him. 

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Robert Tibbo.