Belize has a rich history of ensuring refugee protection and solutions for persons fleeing persecution, dating back to the 1980s. After providing refugees with protection and solutions – primarily voluntary repatriation or local integration – Belize disbanded its asylum apparatus in the late 1990s, while it remained bound by the 1951 Convention and its corresponding national Refugees Act, which also incorporates a larger refugee definition according to the OAU model. In 2010, increasing levels of violence in neighboring countries again forced a new wave of people to seek safety in Belize. In order to deal with this new displacement situation, Belize re-established the Refugee Eligibility Committee and the Refugees Department in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Existing commitments to respond to displacement crises, for example stemming from the San Jose Plan of Action, include improving access to and quality of asylum, to foster dialogue towards better regional coordination and responsibility-sharing, and to work with all relevant stakeholders to address protection needs of refugees. With the
exception of a strictly-applied 14-day deadline for asylum applications and the lack of work authorization for asylum-seekers, the country’s legislative framework generally provides a favorable basis to apply comprehensive responses as it guarantees refugees’ legal protection and access to social services such as education and health. In this respect, Belize joined the MIRPS in October 2017, becoming part of a regional response mechanism.
In the process of developing the MIRPS, Belize conducted a national consultation in October 2017 with a cross-section of stakeholders – including various Government departments, the Ombudsman, UN agencies, the clergy, civil society, academia and persons of concern – to identify and agree on priority areas to be addressed.
A national Secretariat has been established to oversee the implementation of Belize’s national MIRPS chapter. The MIRPS Secretariat is operated by the Ministry of Immigration, formally represented by the Refugees Department, which also functions as the overall MIRPS Focal Point; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is expected to participate in formal Secretariat meetings; and UNHCR is providing technical support. The Secretariat will periodically report to the CEO Caucus, a board of all Government vice-ministers. The CEO Caucus will thus act as the de facto Steering Committee of the MIRPS. In addition, the Government created three technical working groups to guide the started implementation of identified priorities in 2018: (a) profiling and data collection, (b) drafting of standard operating procedures, strengthening the asylum process, and (c) sustainable solutions, with an initial focus on access to education services. This latter working group will also spearhead the technical development of a more specific national action plan on protection and solutions (NAPPS), based on the MIRPS National Chapter.
Commitments towards the MIRPS application
Among the critical needs that the multi-stakeholder group identified were the sensitization of all stakeholders, greater regional collaboration efforts, and the development of comprehensive multi-sectorial public policies on refugees, ensuring access to education, health and other basic rights. Several overarching issues and corresponding recommendations were identified in the National Chapter under each of the four MIRPS pillars. One predominant recommendation is to support protection-sensitive mapping and data collection in order to consider the public policy recommendations arising from such information. Moreover, acknowledged recommendations include, inter alia, to:
Key partners involved
The Government’s Ministries of Immigration and Foreign Affairs, Refugees Department, Refugee Eligibility Committee and other Belizean authorities work closely with key partners including UNHCR and the UN System, the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Development Bank, national and international NGOs such as Help for Progress, Belize Red Cross and RET, refugee leaders, private companies, churches and civil society. Belize currently has the presidency pro tempore of the Central American Integration System – which has developed a work plan to implement its commitments as cooperating institution to MIRPS. The OAS, that is mandated to develop a regional monitoring mechanism to the implementation of the MIRPS, is fully involved in the national process for Belize with active championship of its country representative in relevant advocacy and support. UNHCR closely cooperates with the Ombudsman Office in Belize, who, as part of the Central American Council of Ombudspersons, also agreed to participate in a concrete programme of action to support the MIRPS for the period 2018-2020, including joint border monitoring and advocacy campaigns for forcibly displaced persons.
Going forward, Belize will continue to consolidate its guidance and oversight structure, enhancing the compilation of the multi-annual national action plan on protection and solutions, which will be validated and endorsed in a follow-up round of national consultations in late 2018. A follow-up quantification of identified gaps in national priorities and budgets will take place in the course of 2019.
Meanwhile, the three multi-stakeholder technical working groups will continue, with technical support from UNHCR, to focus on attaining key expected results in the areas of data collection, asylum strengthening, and sustainable solutions (education focus) in 2018.
One of the main challenges of the MIRPS application in Belize is to ensure that persons in need of international protection have access to territory and to a fair and efficient asylum process. While Belize has not yet officially joined the Quality Assurance Initiative (QAI), the Refugees Department has begun to engage with UNHCR in an asylum-strengthening initiative and is chairing the technical working group to achieve standard operating procedures on refugee referrals from other Ministries. These positive efforts are expected to adjust the application of a statutory 14-day application deadline for refugees, to amend the Refugees Act accordingly and to enhance the output of the asylum apparatus.
The MIRPS promotes more comprehensive support to refugee-receiving communities and facilitation of the integration processes, with the expectation of eventually triggering meaningful concessions with regard to asylum-seekers’ formal permission to work. An accessible, shorter and more effective asylum process remains the goal of quality assurance measures, while facilitated work permits for asylum-seekers would mean that bona fide applicants would find means of self-sufficiency, thus reducing their current vulnerability to exploitation.
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Elisabet Diaz Sanmartin, DIAZSANM@unhcr.org
This report was prepared by the Evaluation Service, UNHCR.
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