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By Khaila Gentle BELIZE CITY, Mon. May 9,...

From COPA to Queen Street

HeadlineFrom COPA to Queen Street

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 20, 2022– On Tuesday evening, a COPA airlines flight from Panama arrived at the Philip Goldson International Airport (PGIA), and 37 passengers onboard that flight—35 Venezuelans, 1 Moroccan and 1 Dominican Republic national— would be denied entry into Belize. There are several reasons that they were not allowed to disembark and proceed with their visit. According to local authorities, the hotel reservations that they listed were bogus, since the establishments that they listed apparently do not exist or are not located in the country. (It is to be noted that GoB’s Covid-19 protocol for international visitors includes a requirement that tourists wishing to vacation in Belize provide proof of a pre-booked Gold Standard accommodation.) Additionally, they were unable to present their return tickets upon arrival and had little to no funds to sustain themselves. The immigration authorities thus refused to allow the passengers to enter the country. What took place at that point led to a standoff thar would grow in intensity. Some sources are saying that the pilot of the flight on which the passengers arrived was ordered to take those passengers back to Panama, which prompted resistance on the part of the passengers, who, according to some reports, became increasingly hostile to the authorities after the Dominican national among them began to incite unrest within the group. In response to what the authorities considered a public disturbance at the airport, 32 of the travelers were detained. Twenty-five of them were subsequently taken to the Queen Street Police Station, while the remaining twelve were taken to the Dorothy Menzies Children’s Home and are under police watch. according to Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Immigration, Hon. Eamon Courtenay. Today, following serious allegations of human rights violations by the authorities, the travelers were taken to the Best Western Belize Biltmore Hotel, where they will stay until Saturday, January 22, when the next COPA airlines fights is scheduled to take them back to their place of origin.

The detained passengers secured the legal representation of attorney OJ Elrington, who was reportedly called to the police station yesterday morning and retained by the aggrieved Venezuelans, some of whom, as mentioned, are now reporting serious human right violations at the hands of Belizean authorities. In an interview yesterday, Elrington informed local reporters that he was told by the authorities that the passengers did not meet the requirements to enter Belize. And while Elrington has not objected to that determination by Belizean authorities and their decision to deny the travelers entry, he said that he is deeply troubled by the alleged human rights violations that his clients, a number of whom were detained at the Queen Street Police Station since Tuesday evening, have described to him.

“The allegation is that they have not met the requirements to enter Belize. That is fine. What is very disturbing in this situation and the reason that I believe you guys are here is because there are some serious human right violations which are happening in this situation. First and foremost, my clients have informed that since yesterday they have been given food once, denied water and not given food, and only given food once at about 9:30 last night. They have been treated inhumanely, have been subjected to cruel and inhumane punishment. Treatment which does not comply with simple human rights standards,” Elrington said during his interview.

He went on to state that he was informed that among those being held was a minor, and he pointed out that the treatment of the child was a violation of every statute that outlines the rights of a child.

Hon. Eamon Courtnay

According to public statements made by the Ministry of Immigration today, however, no minor was detained at the Queen Street Police Station. The Immigration Ministry also denied the allegation that the travelers were not given food and water and has asserted that they were given provisions at around 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday night before being transported by police to the locations at which they are currently being held. Minister Eamon Courtenay told local reporters that since there is no detention center in the country for persons who are denied leave to enter the country, those at the Ministry had to coordinate with police to find an appropriate location at which those persons could be housed.

Elrington had further stated that, up to the time of his media interview, he had only been allowed to speak to two of his clients, and he said that he had not properly consulted the group for instructions, since the Officer commanding the Queen Street Police Station had rejected his request to speak with the other foreign detainees.

“When I subsequently requested to speak to the other persons, I have been denied, have been denied the opportunity to speak to them, and in so doing they are denying the human rights and the constitutional rights of these persons.” Elrington said. He added that he had been in touch with the International Office of Migration (IOM) in Belize and had spoken with representatives of the Human Rights Commission, who he says had initially planned to go to the police station but were unable to make it.

According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the detained persons were allowed to speak with an official from Venezuela. They noted that none of the travelers are seeking asylum in Belize and that they all listed tourism as their purpose of travel. Arrangements have since been made to send them back to their country of origin, but because COPA does not have daily flights to Belize, they will have to wait until this coming Saturday.

The Immigration Ministry said that in a meeting yesterday evening with COPA officials in Belize, Guatemala and Panama, Belize’s immigration officials, led by Director Debra Baptist Estrada, explained to the COPA agents why the passengers were denied entry, and they concurred that the travelers should be returned to Panama at COPA’s expense. Since Venezuelan nationals need a visa to enter Guatemala, COPA’s partner airline, TAG, for which Guatemala is a point of transit, could not take the passengers back to Panama on its regular route. COPA thus agreed to provide hotel accommodations, food, water, and a return flight and police guard for the travelers.

In his interview, Elrington had described to reporters the circumstances that, according to his clients, led to their detention. He went on to state that one of his clients was “visibly upset” when the group was returned to the plane, and the pilot decided not to proceed. Those expressions of anger were viewed as a disturbance, and that is when, according to Elrington, the Belizean authorities detained all the passengers involved, as part of what appeared to be a “good suffer for the bad” response to the standoff.

“When they got back on the plane, one of the persons who was visibly upset about the situation and about being denied entry and not being provided any information as to why their entry was being denied — imagine you go to Orlando for a trip and they say, ‘just go back’, you would be upset. But they said there was no threat of violence, nothing, and the pilot said if this person is causing a disturbance so he will not proceed, and when they came back they said ‘you know what, we will punish all of you’, her words were, and you know how I know, because she speaks English and said something that all of us Belizean would understand; she said, ‘one of you will make all of you feel’. That doesn’t sound like something that police would say in Belize?” Elrington said.

In a release issued this morning, the Human Rights Commission stated, “We have not been able to clearly assess whether these individuals have international protection needs; however, it is clear that these individuals have made a request to seek asylum in our country. It is the responsibility of our authorities to process them accordingly. Where individuals are returned to a country where violence and possibly death awaits them, then we have failed as a state to protest the rights of these individuals.”

The release goes on to state, “This country is a signatory to the Refugee Convention. No one forced the State to be a signatory. The human and honorable thing needs to be done.”

This is the second time an incident of this nature has occurred involving COPA airline, according to Minister Courtenay, who says they have expressed their concerns to the airline. (In October of last year, 11 passengers on a COPA flight were denied leave to enter the country.) “We have shared with them our concerns for these flights. We have shared with them our concern for what we regard as insufficient screening. We have shared with them our concern for the turnaround time, because the flight arrives and it’s like 50 odd minutes before it leaves, there is a line in the arrival area and before we can finish that, they are looking to leave, which presents a problem, hence the arrangement for TAG. I believe that because of the irregular flow of migrants, Guatemala has now imposed a visa-requirement for Venezuelans and Ecuadorians going into Guatemala. Mexico, tomorrow I believe it is, Mexico will now impose a visa requirement for Venezuelans.”

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