Plusnews has been following the story of the influx of refugees into the country of Belize. As we have reported, there is a lot of movement at the Help for Progress building in Belmopan, and According to a PlusNews source, there are more than one refugee type programs ongoing in the country of Belize at this time. In an interview with Minister of State Beverly Castillo, for whom a special legislation was passed in the last sitting of the house relating to Immigration duties, she referred two separate programs
Hon. Beverly Castillo, Minister of State- Immigration: The refugees are moving into the help for progress office looking at the and filling them. There’s a next process for that. That is to review and to determine whether they would qualify as refugees. As indicated earlier, the refugee program is completely different from the protection transfer program that was initiated by UNHCR recently, two separate programs. 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 then further transfer into the US.
So there is, first of all, the US request for Belize to be used as a transfer protection site for Salvadoran Refugees wishing to make their way to the United States. The US request, as we understand, is to use Belize as a temporary landing site for asylum seekers who are interested in getting Refugee Status in the US. The proposal has Belize acting as a clearing House as the refugees are being processed. Prime Minister Dean Barrow says Government has not approved the program as yet.
Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister of Belize: The UN high commission for refugee has proposed to Belize that we enter into the 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 US so there would be transiting Belize and under the proposal would remain here with host families for a period not to exceed 6 months until they can then proceed to the United States. While that proposal has been made, while cabinet has been looking at it, there has been no agreement and we’ve 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 social public in order to get Belizean reaction. That would kind of be a condition precedent before we could reach any agreement and implement any such program.
But while the US Refugee Transfer Program has not been approved, according to the Prime Minister, it would appear that the program is at least in some sort of preliminary stage. That is because Plusnews has learned that the program is in what is called the “Site inspection ” phase; i.e., locating where in Belize they will put the potential refugees. We have confirmed from multiple sources, including the chairman of Valley of Peace Village, that the US Ambassador along with two ranking representatives from UNHCR, visited the community of Valley of Peace and met with community leaders and several potential host families two months ago. The group pitched to the community that if any family from Valley of Peace was willing to accept refugees into their homes, the US would in return build additions to their homes; new bathrooms, and bedrooms where the families would stay. They also commit to building new classrooms to accommodate the influx of new students. Incidentally, from late last year the community was already experiencing a rapid increase in population, according to the chairman of the village. The community rejected the proposal because they were fearful that they could expose themselves and their community to gang violence since most of the potential refugees have ties to gangs in El Salvador. Minister Beverly Castillo’s interview revealed a very unusual definition of what constitutes a legitimate asylum seeker and the dangers that such an influx of people could pose.
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.
The fears of the villagers of Valley of Peace are perhaps justified considering a news article from El Mundo which quoted Salvadoran Security Minister Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde alerting Central American police forces that gang members may flee El Salvador into neighboring countries.
“We are aware a flight possibility exists…Gang members will be looking to evade Salvadoran justice.”
Then according to Prensa Gráfica, Roberto Flores, El Salvador’s Vice Minister of Security, said,
“We have information [gang members] are leaving through blind spots, and others through border crossings.”
In neighboring Honduras, the country which is the logical nearest choice for asylum seekers to run to has made an announcement through their National Inter-institutional Security Force, FUSINA, stating it had intensified operations along the country’s land and sea borders to prevent the entry of criminal elements. FUSINA issued a press release stating it is
“coordinating with Central American authorities to exchange information on the movements of criminal groups,… and is working to prevent the entry of persons into Honduras with the intent of committing crimes.”
Even in neighboring Guatemala , Security officials have also ordered the national police to establish a series of controls to prevent Salvadoran gang members from entering the country, reported La Prensa Gráfica. All our neighbors appear to be taking measures to prevent influx of Salvadoran, so why is Belize going in the opposite direction? No Belize government official has commented on the security concerns and neither did today’s press release from Government.