One of the stories in the news for the last few weeks is that of the increase in individuals who have been going through the NGO, Help for Progress, seeking refugee status in Belize. In yesterday’s cabinet meeting, Government said there is no formal, nor legal agreement with Help for Progress. Today we spoke with Minister of State with responsibility for Immigration, Beverly Castillo about the issue.
“The process is there because the government of Belize is currently receiving technical assistance from UNHCR in dealing with the refugee process. The processing of Refugees are guided by the chapter 165 of the laws of Belize the Refugee act and the act, the desk for refugees was downsized some time ago way back in the 1980s and so with the reactivation of the refugee eligibility committee we are dealing with the cases that were outstanding and the UNHCR is assisting Belize and they operate from the Help for Progress office and that is why you would have seen the activities there. Now as it relates to cabinet’s decision yesterday is because of the heightened media attention on that office. There has been an increase in the flows of applicants, people who go in to register, we refer to them as asylum seekers, they come in to register and they are processed and given a documentation for which they reach out to immigration and receive a special permit because that is just the acceptance of the registration for them to come in and register. There after there is the interview process but the act is very specific, it speaks to the 14 day period any person seeking asylum must do so within the 14 day window provided in the act and so while you see an increase that is not necessarily saying that all of those persons will be processed for refugee status. We are looking at those files ,we have not signed a single document for a refugee at least not since I’ve been in office and so cabinet’s response yesterday is also an opportunity to stock take. Stock taking in the sense of looking at what it is that we have, we are not aware of an agreement as is stated in the press release, if there is one then it is still a good time to stock take, look at what it is and then put that information before cabinet for a policy decision on the way forward. It is our view in the Ministry that those persons already are in Belize for an extended period of time and so you will also run the risk of those same persons saying to family members that they are registering and inviting them to come in and our borders are very porous and so that brings it’s own level of risk and again that is the importance of stopping, stocktaking and then planning the way forward.”
As we mentioned in previous newscasts, there is a proposed program, the protection transfer agreement that is on the table. Castillo said they are still in discussions on that matter.
“There is the proposed program by the US for a protection transfer agreement with the government of Belize which will bring in vulnerable person into Belize. They would be given a first screening and if they are considered to be in risky or vulnerable situations they will be brought into Belize into a safe haven and then after further screening will then be taken into the US. This is why it’s called protection transfer, you are protected and transferred and then onward movement to the US. That program is in discussion with cabinet, cabinet has been very clear that the information provided, we’ve asked for some further information to clarify before cabinet looks at it but that even before cabinet moves ahead that we would then socialize it with our partners in Belize for their input before we agree to such a program and that is where it is right now. We’ve received some information but it has not been forwarded to cabinet. It goes back to cabinet next week and we will be able to say if it’s a yes or a no and then it goes to socialization with our partners before cabinet can make that decision.”
We asked Castillo if Belize is in a position to handle what is being asked of it given the additional resources that would be needed.
“That is a major concern and that is why we have to look at all the data, look at what it is, the heightened inflows into the help for progress office that is why we are asking if these are actually refugees. We learnt that some of those persons that were in help for progress for acceptance, just to register as asylum seekers not to be given a status some of those persons were already in the immigration system. Now if you don’t qualify they are already being processed for either permanent residence or other requirements or services that we provide. Now those persons would then not be we would eliminate those already but when you walk into an office where UN HRC is giving that assistance UN HRC will receive those persons they would not turn them back. We’ve been working with UNHCR as a reputable organization for some time and of course the expertise exists with them, they import some of it for us and that is where we benefit as a country in working with these organizations who have the capacity and with the recent appointment of Ms.Marin to the post of director of Refugees is giving government’s attention to look at this matter very seriously in setting up a department so that government can take control of that function and for us to carry out the mandate as prescribed under the act.”
Yesterday’s release ended by saying any entity other than the duly authorized Refugee Eligibility Committee involved in processing applications for refugee status considerations, should cease and desist from such activity.