After Plus News broke the story regarding hundreds of refugees lining up at the Help for Progress Building in Belmopan to fill out applications for refugee status, Belizeans became concerned about the lack of transparency in the process as well as the lack of information. Government then issued its first press release on the issue titled ” Government Explains Refugee Situation in Belize” on May 10th 2016. In that release government had said that
“Help for Progress, a nongovernmental organization, represents the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and has the responsibility to receive applications from potential asylum seekers and conduct an initial interview”
But immediately following this Tuesday’s meeting of the Cabinet, government issued a second press release regarding the recent refugee situation, and in a complete 180 degree turn, has reversed its position to now state that
“…Cabinet determined that there exist NO formal, nor legal, agreement between the Government of Belize and the NGO, Help for Progress that authorizes Help for Progress personnel accepting application for refugees status in Belize, and to further conduct interviews and determine which applicant has a legitimate case or not.”
Our colleagues at Channel 7 spoke with Minister of State in the Ministry of Immigration and Nationality, Beverly Castillo, and asked her why the about face.
Hon Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration: Daniel, there was a lot of information processed in cabinet, and this is a very delicate matter, the refugee matter, so cabinet gave it due attention yesterday. Particularly the upswing of applicants, those that visit the help for progress office. Historically we’ve had an office in late 1980s I believe and that office was then reduced to a desk in immigration. Subsequent to that Help for Progress worked along with UNHCR and UNHCR is in country for technical assistance with government of Belize but they are funded by UNHCR that is Help for Progress and so the flows come through there. There is a desk in immigration that process those application after they’re accepted just the application is accepted. But I believe with the now focus on the department and with the reactivation of the Refugee eligibility committee it is time for us to step back to do a stock taking to do the analysis; what is there, what is happening, what is actually in the process. For us I’m not aware of any such agreement. If it exists, it exists but if it does but it is stock taking time and then we will then do an analysis and forward the information to cabinet for policy guidance. That is really where we are. We spoke to now director of refugees this morning and we’ve instructed that we look at developing a cabinet paper and gathering the data and ensure that cabinet has all the information in making a well informed decision on how we move forward on this matter of refugees.
The release continues by explaining that during the few years of inactivity of the Refugee Eligibility Committee, no entity was empowered to conduct interviews to determine whether refugee applicants for refugee status had a legitimate case for consideration. The release said
“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.”
Such strong words, but does it mean that Health for Progress was doing anything illegal? No, says Minister Castillo.
Hon Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration: I don’t think that is what it meant; I believe government now wants to take control of that situation and the first initiative was for the appointment of now director, and for us to now look at the development of that office to do capacity building but in the interim as I said stock take, look at what is there and to recommend the way forward. We always look to an organization like UNHCR, highly reputable organization for guidance, for technical assistance and so I believe that the intentions, they were well intended in terms of their actions but however as I said, it’s stock taking time. I can’t speak for what happened 30 years ago.
Daniel Ortiz, Reporter: Those people who received that special permit before this policy change where the refugee committee is taking over the application process by themselves totally, are those special permits still valid, and is there any reason to question the persons who the Help for Progress office had vetted?
Hon Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration: There’s no reason to question them. They came in, they received their applications, they went to immigration, they were given a special permit. What we have to now do is to fast track the processing of those persons who were issued those special applications to determine their status. That is what needs to be done. There were a number of persons who visited, I believe there are 2 days when applications are received, when we receive those and we can look at the data, because that again is being researched on how many we’ve issued so far, what the numbers are and for us again to look at processing them so we can for once and for all look at the status and determine the policy going forward.
And in relation to her pervious definition of who can apply for refugee status, Minister Castillo, was asked if she could restate who could apply and qualify for refugee status. For clarity, we will first air the Minister’s previous comments followed by her new informed position.
Hon Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration: Well they come into Belize because they’re looking for better lively hood and they’re here. Maybe they have no status at the time and that’s what they’re seeking, status to be regularized under the Refugee Project.
Reporter: How does someone like that who has been living in Belize as you say they do not necessarily have their status but using this program to stay in Belize.
Hon Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration: Well I believe the persons flee for various reasons. They want to improve livelihood, some people are at risk, some people 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.
Daniel Ortiz, Reporter: Some of the classifications you discussed the last time are actually ineligible. Those are not issues that would allow for an immigrant to become a refugee in Belize specifically in relation to domestic violence per say. Can you carefully outline for us, how does one become classified as a refugee under our laws.
Hon Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration: I believe section 8.1 of the Refugee Act speaks specifically to refugees coming into Belize. There’s a 14 day window within which they can apply so that is what qualifies you immediately. You would have had to have had a well funded fare of persecution against violence, against political persecution, war, whatever it is in that country of which you have a well funded fare, you would have to apply to the department of refugees to establish your position as an asylum seeker and for us if it’s accepted in that period then you are a refugee applicant indeed.
The government had already stated to the nation that a vast number of the people who went to Help for Progress to apply for asylum were already living in the country for several years. This is contrary to the Refugee Act of Belize which gives a 14 day deadline for asylum seekers to apply. These legal guidelines for consideration of refugee status are very rigid as all applications must be directed to the Department of Refugees, and the application process is lengthy rendering most applicants ineligible. Channel 7 asked the Minister how will these applicants be treated seeing they do not qualify by law.
Hon Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration: We believe so; we’re going to be honest. There has been an upswing of applications between January to date and so it either that or our borders being very porous that it is that people are coming across. You know how we are you tell your family that this is happening, we are registering there so I believe if they did not use sticking strictly to the law; if they did not come in between that 14 day window, then you would not be to be received. You will receive an application because everybody will come with an application but you would not then qualify for refugee status. Some of those person you may wish to know that were accepted are already in the process for permanent residence but people may see an opportunity in that and that is one of the reason government wants to take control of that situation and ensure as I said we do stock taking, analyze what is happening and ensure that government makes an informed decision, policy decision on how we move forward with refugees in this country.
Hon Beverly Castillo, Minister of State, Immigration: You’re an illegal immigrant yes, that would be the status if you do not qualify. However because of the length of time some of these people have been here, government would have to make a decision on how we would treat those persons. They’re already in country, some people are established, some people have children and so you’d have to look at them, but certainly the law would apply to all of those immigrants but it is something that has to go back to cabinet for policy guidance.
PlusNews will continue to update viewers as this Refugee story unfolds.