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Migrants on COPA flight ‘were not prisoners,’ says Immigration Minister, but they broke the law

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2022. 3:04 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Their protestations to the contrary, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Immigration Eamon Courtenay insists that the group of 37 individuals who caught a COPA Airlines flight to Belize from Panama and landed on Tuesday was nether imprisoned nor mistreated.

“They were not prisoners…they were not put in jail,” Courtenay said of the detentions at Queen Street Police Station and Dorothy Menzies Child Care Center at a press briefing.

An official statement makes clear that the group failed to meet Immigration requirements on landing after an interview with officials, to wit, that despite their claims to be tourists, they had no return ticket or cancellation of tickets upon arrival in Belize; insufficient funds to sustain themselves during their stay per Section 5(1)(a) of the Immigration Act and alleged hotel reservations found to be bogus on contact with the various hotels. As such, a notice of forbidden landing was served on the COPA pilot and the group was scheduled to reboard and head back from whence they came.

The bug in the plan appeared when the Dominican national (35 were Venezuelans and the other a Moroccan) objected to being returned to Panama and became disruptive. He started inciting the other persons who were being returned, and they became unruly. As a result of this, the pilot refused to transport them to Panama as they presented a security risk. In accordance with standard practice, the 37 passengers were subsequently deboarded.

Belize has no detention facility for persons in these circumstances, and so Immigration officials contacted Commissioner of Police Chester Williams and Director of the Human Services Department in the Ministry of Human Development to assist with the detention and accommodation of the group as aforesaid. Police were deployed to the International Airport to maintain law and order, protect the Immigration personnel and assist with transporting the group to Queen Street and Dorothy Menzies respectively, and were served food and water from Chon Saan Palace in Belize City.

As to the delay in their repatriation, Courtenay explained that per Belize’s Immigration Act, Section 35, the carrier must bear the costs of repatriating persons denied entry to Belize. In this case, the turnaround time would not have been as great as it now appears if it were not for the fact that COPA’s local manager did not have authority to accept the burden of taking care of the group until COPA’s next flight from Belize on January 22, combined with the fact that TAG Airlines based in Guatemala was unable to take them as per usual because Guatemalan authorities require visas for Venezuelan nationals in particular to enter and transit would have been done through that route.

As we previously reported, none of the migrants cited a wish to apply for asylum or expressed any indication of being persecuted or otherwise so affected as to request to stay in Belize and so will be deported back to Panama.


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