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COPA flight asylum seekers flee to Mexico; Government chides UN refugee agency for escape blunder

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Posted: Monday, January 24, 2022. 4:50 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Immigration has registered its displeasure with the breaking news that the eight Venezuelan nationals that were taken by the Belize national office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to the Help for Progress shelter in Belmopan on Saturday, January 22, 2022 have left the shelter and apparently made their way to Mexico.

Consequently, they never visited the Refugees Department to apply for asylum.

Minister Eamon Courtenay has told the UNHCR head in Belize Roland-Francois Weil “that in light of this episode, there will now be a need for strong protocols to govern future incidents like this one,” and of “the Government’s deep concern at this unacceptable turn of events.”

The Ministry reminded that none of the eight are eligible to stay in, much less enter Belize because they did not meet the requirements for entry as a tourist, which was what they were originally classified as. None had return tickets or their tickets canceled on arrival if they intended to stay; sufficient funds to sustain themselves, and bogus hotel reservations as checked by the Immigration Department.

21 of the original 37 migrants have been returned to Panama as of January 22 – 19 Venezuelans and nationals of Morocco and the Dominican Republic respectively. Save the eight who escaped after requesting refugee status, the others, currently suffering with COVID-19, remain detained at the Best Western Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel at the expense of COPA Airlines, and as soon as it is safe to do so they will be returned to Panama.

As for the eight escapees, after their interviews with UNHCR representatives and request for refugee status, they were handed over to UNHCR implementing partner Help for Progress on the explicit understanding that UNHCR was responsible to see that these persons do not disappear whilst their refugee applications are being processed, which they have now done.

Minister Courtenay had indicated at a press conference last week that Belize was looking at the issue of potentially requiring visas for entry to particular nationals based on data from traffic flow to the Philip Goldson International Airport, but added that it would be looked at carefully and with a view to not discriminating against legitimate tourists and other visitors.

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