BELMOPAN, Thurs. Sept. 7, 2017–The Senate Special Select Committee commissioned to probe into the latest immigration controversy unearthed by a 3-volume audit into the issuance of Belizean visas, nationality, and passports by Belize’s Auditor General Dorothy Bradley, ended its hiatus when it called Immigration Director Diana Locke to appear this afternoon inside the National Assembly in Belmopan.
Locke spoke of continued challenges even as they have moved to put new systems in place to curb acts of impropriety.
Senator for the business community, Mark Lizarraga, asked Locke: “We have heard quite a bit about this culture of corruption that existed in this Department. Was this your experience when you came to the department, Director; did you encounter a culture of corruption?”
“Before I came to the Department, the Department was under scrutiny. I interacted with the Department from October of 2013 until I became the director. I was there frequently, sometimes on a daily basis, sometimes twice a week because I was that liaison between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Immigration Department. So I had the opportunity to interact with the staff in the passport section, and I had the opportunity to interact with the staff in the nationality section. I was aware of some things that I found to be concerning and that obviously found their way into that [audit] book, and because of that in my interaction with the department I looked very closely at those things in all of the procedures that we did with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the department because of those experiences that I had,” said Locke.
“I can’t say that when I got there, I saw that culture of corruption that they referred to. If it existed, I think—we will never be able to erase corruption out of every facet of our life. I do believe that things are happening at the gate, outside of the gate; I’ve gotten complaints… I am not aware that any staff member or anybody has complained that they have physically paid any staff member particularly in Belmopan to do anything…” Locke added.
She spoke of a recent case of someone who went to the Immigration Department in Belmopan to seek services and he was told that he could check inside to see if he could be facilitated before midday, but the individual opted not to pay the bribe and filed an e-mail complaint, which sparked an investigation into the matter.
Locke said that there is a problem with people paying bribes to get to the top of the line, and numbers issued for people to get services are “being sold…”
The Immigration Department is now, therefore, looking into an online system to generate appointments. Locke said that if they can remove the human element, they think that they can serve the public better.
“I don’t like the fact that people feel they have to go to Belmopan at 4:00 in the morning to get a number,” Locke said.
The Auditor General, in her report, made recommendations specifically for the Immigration Director, and Senator Lizarraga said that he hopes that they could be discussed at length at the next session of the Senate Special Select Committee.
“We have seen what’s in the audit book; we have seen new things that have been surfacing… I can definitely say the staff there is very cautious… I would say a lot of things they come to check with me, and they would bring applications for me in the evenings for me to take a second look at,” Locke told the Committee.
She also spoke of the establishment of a visa vetting committee.
“There are revised guidelines for the application for a visa, and there is a visa desk which has been set up where all applications go into and it has a process that it is followed before it is presented to the visa vetting committee. The committee is made up and chaired by the CEO of Immigration, the CEO for Home Affairs, the CEO for Human development and myself. The committee actually physically reviews each application for visa that is presented by whichever national and every national who is required to have a visa to enter Belize. So they physically look at the application, the recommendations made by the investigation unit, documentation presented, whatever other information is submitted…,” she said.
After the hearing today, the Committee visited the Immigration Department for a walk-through, and they asked Locke to return to the hearing next Wednesday.