Tonight, there are many questions surrounding a very vibrant and current refugee program in Belize, and somehow answers seem very scarce. Every week, hundreds of undocumented immigrants flock to the office of the N.G.O., Help for Progress in Belmopan. There, they are given application forms with which they can apply to the Immigration Department for refugee status. It’s been happening for some time now, under the radar. So why the sudden need for a refugee program? Is this just an amnesty program under another name? What are the qualifications to be categorized as a refugee, and who is doing the vetting, if there is any at all? How many refugees have been approved, and what does that mean in terms of nationality? How is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees involved? Mike Rudon has been trying to get some very elusive details and has the story.
Mike Rudon, Reporting
Every week, on Tuesdays and Thursday, immigrants crowd the Help for Progress office in Belmopan. They’re there to fill out applications for local refugee status, not to be confused with the UNHCR’s Protection Transfer program, says Immigration Minister of State Beverly Castillo.
Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration
“The Help for Progress office is processing refugees that currently reside in Belize and are seeking refugee status. The Protection Transfer brings those people at risk from our neighboring countries through Belize and further transfer to the U.S. The refugees are moving into the Help for Progress office, looking at the application forms and filling them out. There is a next process to that…that is to review and to determine whether they would qualify as refugees.”
Castillo says the reason for the program is to ascertain just how many refugees there are in Belize.
“I’m pretty certain that we do not have the precise number, and that’s the reason for reactivating the refugee committee, to look at those and that is why you see an influx into the office for the applications. The office was reduced some last year and reactivated earlier this year, and that is now where you see the influx.”
What qualifies these immigrants for refugee status? Many of them, we are told, have been here in Belize for many years, undocumented. Highly placed sources within the Immigration Department also claim that there is actually little or no vetting, and once an application for refugee status is handed in, these immigrants will automatically be legal in Belize for up to a year, or more in some cases.
“They come into Belize because they are looking for a better livelihood. They are here, and maybe they don’t have a status at this time and that is what they are seeking – at status to be regularized under the refugee project, and the refugee program. The check and balance comes with the processes in determining how they got here, what is their current status and there are many other things internally, so the Help for Progress will be able to give you those guidelines, and I am pretty certain within Immigration, because it is a dual function. Within Immigration we do our checks and balances to ensure that they do qualify after registering with the refugee department.”
Minister of Immigration Godwin Hulse was asked about the refugee program a little over a month ago. He denied any knowledge of it. Minister of State in Immigration Beverly Castillo also doesn’t seem to have all the details, though she did say that she personally has not approved any applications yet.
“The refugee registration started a few months ago. We have processed applications – well received, not processed – of about seven hundred persons that already resided in Belize. Those are being reviewed. I am pretty certain we have not approved any of those as yet. I believe the persons flee for various reasons. They want to improve livelihoods. Some people are at risk, some are considered at risk – persecution, domestic abuse, victimization in whatever form. And so they come, may not have been able to process initially and for reasons of fear they would hide away but now that we have the reactivation of the committee this is an opportune time for them to regularize their status.”
“Has anyone been accepted? You say applications have been received but have there been refugees who have been classified under this program?”
“Yes, I believe some were recommended but I am telling you that we have not signed any of those applications. They are still in review.”
Sources within the Immigration Department tell us that as many as two hundred applications are being handled each week. Mike Rudon for News Five.
Belize Will Possibly Shelter Refugees Heading to the U.S.
So why the sudden urgency for a massive refugee program, or amnesty program of sorts? Is it the result of pressure from the U.S.? It’s possible because it is joined by another program called protection transfer, under the auspices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Again, sources tell us that the problem with both these programs is that there is no screening and no vetting, even a pre-approval of sorts. Prime Minister Dean Barrow explained at his press conference on Thursday.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow
“There is no assistance, no program with the UN. We have reactivated our refugee committee, and there are applicants for refugee status in this country. The UN High Commission for Refugees has proposed to Belize that we enter into a so called Transfer protection agreement with them that would see Belize accept on a kind of in transit basis applicants from El Salvador who are seeking refugee status in the U.S. So they would be transiting Belize and under the proposal would remain here with host families for a period not to exceed six months until they can then proceed to the United States. While that proposal has been made, while the Cabinet has been looking at it, there has been no agreement, but we have certainly made clear that if we ever reach the point where we are satisfied that such a program should in principle proceed we would first put it out to the social partners and to the general public in order to get Belizean reaction.”
Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration
“I am aware that the Protection Transfer program that was initiated by the UNHCR recently which brings persons who reside outside of Belize through Belize as a transfer station and on to the U.S., that there is a pre-screening and pre-approval of those.”
“But isn’t that what the Prime Minister said has not started yet and that there must be a consultation process before that even starts?”
“That’s what I’m saying. That’s a proposed program. Cabinet has agreed that we will look at that program. And if Cabinet is inclined to say yes, then we go to socializing and before we go to activating that program within Belize.”