|Gwen & Tony McGowan. |
Belize is a beautiful country with wonderful people, offering great work opportunities. Who would not want to work in Paradise? Who would not want to have swaying coconut trees and lapping waves on the shoreline as an office view? However, as in every other country, understandably to protect the job market for Belizeans, the Immigration and Nationality Department tightened many policies in 1999. The privilege to work within the Belizean borders requires you to be a national or by acquiring a work permit to conduct any type of employment should you be a foreigner.
All visitors to Belize, regardless of the purpose of their visit, are issued a 30-day visa upon arrival. This is renewable, for up to six months, at any immigration office in the country (at borders and principal cities/towns) by paying $50bze per month. The individual must be prepared to present proof of sustenance for the period in question. If you intend to stay for more than six months, you must have a work permit.
There are two types of work permit applications: a) Application for permission to employ a foreigner. Any foreign citizen who wishes to work in Belize MUST be a legal resident (have resided in Belize for at least six months). The individual must be in the country legally, with proper visas and/or permits issued by the Immigration Department. The prospective employer must submit the necessary paperwork to the Labor Department while an officer ensures that all efforts to employ a Belizean have been exhausted. This includes providing proof that the vacant position was advertised locally for at least three weeks, following which, no suitable applicant was found.
The second type of permit available is an Application for Temporary Self-Employment. This category would apply to foreign investors, among others. All applicants must be in the country legally, with proper visas and/or permits issued by the Immigration Department. They are required to produce proof of reasonably sufficient funds for their proposed venture (i.e.: local bank statement of account).
According to Immigrations Director Gareth Murillo, working in the country without proper documentation is a jail-able offense. Any individual conducting any type of work within the country without a permit, in the first instance, may be jailed for a period of up to six months. The charges levied would be Failure to comply with the Visitor’s Permit. The matter will then be presented before a Magistrate who will make a decision. The individual may face deportation from the country. Bail may be offered once a flight ticket can be presented showing that the person is set to leave the country or the individual may remain in jail until the day of their arranged flight.
Getting caught in the middle of an immigration whirlwind in any foreign country is a sure recipe for disaster. Not being knowledgeable on the laws and procedures puts anyone over the edge. Such was the case of Tony and Gwen McGowan, who arrived in San Pedro Town in early January. According to them, with promises that their paperwork had been arranged prior to their arrival, the McGowan began working as Managers of a resort on North Ambergris Caye. Immigration officials and police officers arrived to the resort on Tuesday, March 2nd and informed them that they were in violation of their Visitor Permit and needed to follow them to the San Pedro Police Department. According to the Immigration Department, the McGowans did not have proper documentation to work within the country and as such were charged for Failure to comply with the Visitor’s Permit.
Once at the Police Department the McGowans were told that they were going to be detained and locked up. However, since the following day was Municipal Elections, they would not get a sitting before a Magistrate until Thursday. Through intervention of the United States Embassy and the McGowans legal representation, a Magistrate was brought in and they were released, not without, what they allege were strong forces trying to keep them detained. The McGowans were released but were removed from the country the following day on Thursday when they took flight back home.
According to Murillo, his Belmopan Department is aware of the McGowan case. Unable to comment on it, the only thing he could state was that the matter was under investigation due to the circumstances that led to the detention of the McGowans.
Back home, Tony and Gwen fondly remember Belize and La Isla Bonita. “We fell in love with the people most of all. It is sad that because of corruption, we could not stay. We wanted to stay so bad,” cries Gwen. The McGowans think that information they were privy to while working at the resort lead them to be caught up in the middle of something deeper than their immigration issue. As such, they have made reports to Internal Affairs and the United States Embassy among others.