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November 6, 2019
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November 6, 2019

UNHCR talks plight of refugees, how journalism can help

Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2019. 8:11 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?

Put overly simply but profoundly: it is the difference between life and (potential) death.

A migrant freely crosses borders, often in search of a better life, but can always go home. By definition, says United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) senior consultant Janice Marshall, refugees cannot, because they have a continuing fear of conflict or persecution, whether for race, creed, orientation or otherwise, and cannot be returned safely.

Some 6,000-plus “persons of concern,” mainly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala by UNHCR’s count, reside in Belize, in such communities as Valley of Peace, Cayo; Bella Vista, on the Stann Creek-Toledo border; and the outskirt communities surrounding the capital, Belmopan, such as Riviera, San Martin, and Maya Mopan.

Of these, more than 3,600 have sought asylum and are registered with the Refugees Department of the Department of Immigration and Nationality; and 596 have been recommended with the Refugee Eligibility Committee as of June. However, just 28 persons are recognized as refugees, and 15 outstanding applications have been accepted by the Committee and approved by the Minister.

With the ongoing crises in northern Central America and the United States, and far afield in Europe and the Middle East, immigration is the issue of our time, and Marshall says it is important for journalists to safely and responsibly report on it.

And so training was held in Belize City for journalists from the northern cone of Belize, including most of the major media houses in Belize, at the Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel this past Saturday. There was robust discussion of the attendant issues of working with refugees, such as those who have committed crimes, or are too scared to tell their stories.

Marshall asks for “sympathy and empathy” with refugees, many of whom are in limbo while their applications are being processed: they cannot legally work or earn a living and are often begging lodging with friends and family, living in the knowledge that they can be deported at any time for running afoul of the law.

Belize’s Refugees Act, promulgated in 1991, has its flaws according to Marshall, including a very short 14-day period to register as a refugee from the moment of arrival into Belize, of which many are not aware and are not told. The Government, we are told, is looking into this.

The general slowness of the process is also worrying because of the constant fear and worry over whether their new country will accept them.

Jenny Barchfield, former Associated Press foreign correspondent now working for the regional office of UNHCR in Mexico, and a co-facilitator of the training, said she came to a realization that reporting on refugees has not been as ideal as it can be, and needs to be both “coherent and respectful of the people being covered, and does not put them in any danger.”

Hence, reporters must pay keen attention to limiting much of the personal details often provided, as these stories are powerful but if wrongly told, can expose the subject to unnecessary and occasionally fatal consequences.

Even the flash of a face on video or identifiable clothing or other personal item can be explosive.

But there are always creative ways to tell the story, as UNHCR correspondents found out when they went to interview a particular refugee who declined to be interviewed for fear of his life. The story they came back with was of his employer, a hotel owner who descended from migrants and is now giving jobs to refugees to get them on their feet.

Further training takes place for journalists from the South on November 9.


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