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Regularizing asylum seekers and refugees still a slow moving process, says UN refugee agency

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Posted: Saturday, November 13, 2021. 8:28 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Belize has long been open to those migrating and seeking to settle here as refugees from other countries.

But according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), the process to regularize their status here remains slow-moving, even as the crises around us intensify.

Two years after their last training meeting with the press in Belize on guidelines for reporting on immigration stories, a small follow-up was held today in which the latest statistics were shared.

Belize presently hosts up to 2,500 persons seeking asylum, mainly from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Of these, about 600 have effectively been approved for asylum from gang violence, socio-political crisis and other vulnerability issues such as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

However, it was revealed that just 20 so far this year have been assured of refugee status, with a bottleneck at the Refugees Department, part of the Ministry of Immigration and Nationality, apparently to blame.

We understand that there is one person conducting interviews and background checks into persons seeking asylum and refugee status, despite the policy of the Department of Immigration having changed in January to allow late applications for asylum and refugee status (the Refugees Act officially establishes a 14-day period, but many are not aware of this on their arrival here).

UNHCR says a majority of these individuals live in the Cayo, Toledo and Belize Districts, with a few even moving to Ambergris Caye.

The Belize office, a sub-office of the regional office located in Panama, does its best to register and provide services and training, including but not limited to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, counseling, and training to open small businesses and legal services.

UNHCR Senior Public Information Assistant Aida Escobar explained that the difference between an asylum seeker and potential refugee and a regular migrant is that while the latter can always go back home at any time, the former is under threat if they do.

One example is a mother who witnessed her uncle being murdered by a gang right after speaking to him, then being threatened by the gang that she would be killed if she talked. She fled in the night as many do and arrived here in Belize. Some have even less time than that and often leave family members and in some cases children and spouses behind.

But according to Escobar, refugees share the same wishes and hopes and dreams as the rest of us: a permanent place to stay and make something of their lives without living in fear.

To tell their stories, she said, journalists must be sensitive to whether their subject can be unnecessarily exposed and to heal the occasional xenophobia expressed by those who think refugees will take away jobs from Belizeans, or encourage crime, or otherwise change the fabric of our society.

Worldwide there are 26.6 million officially classed refugees of which 20.8 million are under the purview of the refugee agency.

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