The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR held a one day seminar on Refugee Law and Policy with the staff of the Ministry of Human Development and the Refugees Department. UNHCR Protection Officer Kelleen Corrigan said the objective was to work together with the departments to raise awareness on refugee issues and to exchange information and support to find the best ways to respond to these issues. A large part of their focus was on children who have had to flee their home countries.
UNHCR Protection Officer Kelleen Corrigan:
You know the neighboring countries particularly Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been places where a number of people have had to flee their homes so given that scenario having Belize as a neighbor we know that there have been people who have had to cross the border because they simply cannot stay at home for their own safety and this means there are particular obligations of states and there are things that states can do to help better protect people in these situations and you simply want to help support the state and government to do what they need to do to help Belize. Belize actually has a refugees act that dates back from 1991 that has been in place since then and so the apparatus the Refugees Eligibility Committee and the Refugees Department that restarted in 2015 and 2016 kind of puts together the whole apparatus for dealing with adjudicating refugee claims but there are issues for example children who come into the system and may not know how to speak about what has happened to them and it may not be obvious that they are refugees and there are all of those kinds of things and so I think it’s important for us to be able to deal with those other counterparts in the government who may come into contact with children or with others and if they know what to look for or understand how the system is working that they can better refer them to the appropriate authorities and get them adjudicated or not and be able to have their rights or determine that they might not be refugees in which case then find where their families are and then figure out the best way to get them safely home.”
Director of the Refugees Department, Maria Marin says the Department of Human Services’ participation is key because when vulnerable migrants especially minors, unaccompanied minors, adolescents, pregnant women and senior persons seek asylum in the country, the refugee department looks to them for assistance. She adds that given the increased number of people seeking refuge in Belize, the Refugees Eligibility Committee was reinstated in 2015 and in 2016 the Refugee Department was reinstituted. The seminar is part of an ongoing collaboration to sensitize and raise awareness on the issues with different counterparts in the country and outside.
Director of the Refugees Department, Maria Marin:
“Belize is a signatory to the 1951 convention on the status of refugees and the 1967 protocol and so with the situation in Central America since 2013-2014 becoming a little more aggressive the situation in El Salvador and Honduras especially there were persons who were in need of protection and so those that satisfied the definition of a refugee or asylum seeker then we needed to have a proper body to ensure that these obligations that resulted from the convention and the protocol then were addressed and so the department then came into being because we saw an increase in the numbers that were coming across. We have persons who come in mainly from the northern triangle of Central America majority of our applicants are Salvadorans and then we have Hondurans and Guatemalans those are the groups that make up the bigger numbers.”
This was the first in a series of seminars to be held by the Refugee Department.