Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The fate of shipwrecked immigrants in Belize

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Over the years, shipwreck survivors have unintentionally ended up on Belizean shores. Whether they run aground on the barrier reef, experience engine trouble, or drift off course, the treatment from Belizean authorities, according to reports, is inconsistent. According to recent incidents, some are cleared and allowed to leave after being assisted, while others are imprisoned, and arrangements are made for their removal from the country. The most recent cases include Jamaicans, a Canadian national, and a group of 16 Cubans. The Cubans drifted to the northern coast of San Pedro Ambergris Caye on September 1st, were detained, arraigned as prohibited immigrants, and imprisoned at the Belize Central Prison until they could be removed from the country.
The latest incident report indicates that the Cuban group (14 males and two females) had been in the Cayman Islands seeking asylum. After their request was denied, they left that island en route to Honduras but faced bad weather and ran out of fuel. According to members of the group, they drifted for around a week and, when they saw signs of land, made a distress call. They had no idea they had reached the northern coast of Ambergris Caye. They were assessed by medical personnel, and then the immigration and police department became involved. The shipwrecked victims claimed they were Cubans but did not have any documents. It was later learned that they left their passports in the Cayman Islands. With the suspicion that they were heading to the United States, the group was detained at the San Pedro Police Station. On September 2nd, they were transported to Belize City, where they were arraigned as prohibited immigrants. The vessel they traveled is now the property of the Government of Belize after the captain forfeited the boat to the immigration department.
What happens to Cubans after deportation
Some years ago, it is alleged that Cubans deported back home where imprisoned by their government as they were not allowed to leave the country without proper permission.
But according to information from El Nuevo Diario (https://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/internacionales/275273-reforma-migratoria-favorece-militantes-cubanos/), as of January 14, 2013, all Cuban government-imposed travel restrictions and controls have been lifted. Thus, any Cuban citizen, with a valid passport, can travel out of the country at will, without any prohibitions by the Cuban authorities. This amendment in the regulations also states that persons who leave Cuba via unconventional means, like on boats, are no longer violating Cuban law, and are not subjected to detention or imprisonment.
Canadian National boat stuck on the reef
In March of this year, a sailboat named ‘Ramblynn’ captained by Canadian national Glen Perter got stuck on the reef as it attempted to navigate the Tranquility Bay channel north of Ambergris Caye. Peter was reportedly traveling from Mexico to Guatemala. According to a report, Peter asked for help, and the Belize Coast Guard responded to his distress call. The Rickilee Response and Rescue then assisted Peter. After his health was assessed, he was brought to shore, and an investigation started. While that was taking place, it was confirmed that Peter was allowed to return to his country due to health issues; meanwhile, his boat remained stuck on the reef.
The Department of Environment (DOE) indicated that Peter had hired a private company to remove the vessel safely. It could not be confirmed if any fines were levied on Peter, but initial reports from the Department of Environment in May said the reef around the shipwreck area did not incur any damages.
Jamaican ordeal
In July 2019, three Jamaican nationals, Noel Samuels, Romeo Lewis, and Karma Beckford, arrived on the coast of Ambergris Caye after drifting for 25 days. They had been out fishing off the west coast of Jamaica on June 23rd when their boat developed a fault and helplessly drifted away. They arrived on the northern coast of Ambergris Caye on July 19th, where they were detained until July 26th, when they were finally transported to Belmopan City. The Jamaican Honorary Consul made arrangements to return them to Jamaica.

(l-r) Noel Samuels, 50, Karma Beckford 44, and Romeo Lewis, 23

On the first night on Ambergris Caye, the group of fishermen was attended to at the Dr. Otto Rodriguez San Pedro Polyclinic II. They were severely dehydrated after being lost at sea for so many days. After being treated at the clinic, to their surprise, Samuels, Lewis, and Beckford spent the night locked in prison at the San Pedro Police Station. According to them, it was horrific and disappointing. They made it clear that arriving in Belize was accidental and did not break any laws.
The following day they were removed from the cell and taken by the immigration department to the international boat terminal on the lagoon side behind the Saca Chispas field. They spent several days in the terminal, under guard. Islanders assisted them with food and clothing while arrangements were made for their return home.
With the assistance of their family members back home and the Jamaican Honorary Consul on August 3rd, they managed to leave Belize. A day after, they safely landed in Kingston, Jamaica. Despite their bittersweet experience in Belize, the Jamaican trio remains grateful to everyone, particularly San Pedranos, who tried to help them.
The public opinion in these cases is that more must be done to process such unexpected situations adequately. The general opinion shared with The Sun asks for fairness, and everyone should be treated equally regardless of nationality.

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