Last Friday, Plus News, visited the Belmopan offices of Help For Progress, an NGO which claims to be dedicated to rural community development but also doubles as a refugee clearing house for UNHCR; United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Last week, our journalists observed lines of Hispanic men and women outside Help for Progress registering and applying for refugee status in Belize. Most Belizeans are unaware of this new wave of refugees, primarily from El Salvador, coming to Belize seeking refugee status, with the authorization of the Government of Belize. Last month, KREM News reported on what they called “…an ongoing amnesty program or a refugee assistance program” that the Government had supposedly undertaken with the UNHCR. At a senate meeting on March 29, 2016, Senator Godwin Hulse, Minister for Immigration, was asked by Krem about the reports but he denied them. Here is that interview Courtesy Krem News.
Sen. Godwin Hulse, Minister for Immigration: Absolutely not. The only thing I know is that there is a case, and I think you know as well where the united states, UNHCR, United Nations High Commission of Refugees have been talking to the government of Belize in respect to safe passage in the sum of people that they would want to move people through Belize into the United States. I think that you know that they were trying to move some people, some Cubans through Guatemala and Honduras and other things, it’s in that similar vein. It hasn’t amounted to anything at this stage. We’re still talking and Belize has to have all sorts of details before we would even consider that process. Yes I think there will be a new induction of citizens very soon. We continue that process as you know. There are lots of people who qualify and whose certificates are ready so there’ll be another swearing in shortly.
While information has been hard to come by, PlusNews has been able to confirm that Minister Hulse assembled the working committee in April of 2015 and activated it in November just after the General Elections. That committee, we understand, meets once per month since last year to review applications. We were informed that Help for Progress and the Immigration Department accept registration of potential refugees on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Today we took our cameras back out to Help for Progress around 10 a.m. and the crowd had grown considerably from the last time we went. Krem News estimates close to 1 hundred 50 people being processed on any given day while our sources say closer to 100. . The process begins when a Registration form is filled out at Help for Progress office then the applicants walk or catch a cab to go over to Immigration department. PlusNews followed this Taxi as it left Help for Progress and made its way directly over to Immigration. Sources close to the Immigration Department say that applicants coming from Help for Progress are automatically facilitated with 3 months to a year approval. One source expressed concern to Plus news that a loophole may be creating a situation where a large number of the preapproved applicants could be illegal aliens who have been in Belize for years and are using it as an opportunity to legitimize their stay in Belize. The reports being received are that the applicants are citing death threats from gangs in El Salvador as the reason for fleeing their country. After Plusnews broke the story on Friday, Prime Minister borrow today spoke on the issue after the media broke protocol at the Sarstoon press conference by asking him about the immigration situation.
Hon Dean Barrow, Prime Minister Belize: There is no, as you framed it, no assistance, no program with the UN. We have reactivated our refugee committee and there are applicants for refugee status in this country. The UN High Commission for Refugee has proposed to Belize that we enter into a 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 the cabinet has been looking at it, there has been no agreement and we 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 general public in order to get Belizean reaction. That would be a kind of condition precedent before we could reach any agreement and implement any such program.
Reporter: Our colleagues at PlusTv and we have been hearing these reports that people from Central America have been lining up outside of Help for Progress processing their applications to be admitted in the country.
Hon Dean Barrow, Prime Minister Belize: Please listen to what I am saying. We’re talking about two things, I said to you that locally there are people who are in this country who are applying for refugee status and the refugee department looks at those applications and processes them. That is completely different from the protection transfer agreement that you asked about which has been proposed by the UN which would be dealing with people not in Belize, not applying for refugee status in Belize but people from El Salvador who’d be applying for refugee status in the US but who the UN would want to have come to Belize in order to escape the conditions immediately from which they are seeking to flee while they await their processing, the processing of their applications by the US relevant authority, so we’re talking about two different things.