A pair of young farmhands wait for a ride at an idle junction under a coconut palm on a blistering day in south Belize. A short drive east is a fishing village of Garifunas – mixed-race descendants of African slaves and indigenous Arawaks – while along the highway to the west are clusters of Mayan thatched huts.
It’s too hot to walk the few miles to Bella Vista, a dusty Spanish-speaking migrant community whose inhabitants mostly work in the surrounding banana plantations and shrimp farms – part of the steady flow of seasonal labourers from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, drawn here by higher wages and plentiful work.
Belize has long counted on its neighbours to prop up its sugarcane and fruit farms, but in recent years violence in the three countries has generated a surge in new arrivals searching not for work, but for survival.
Corrupt security forces, international drug cartels and warring street gangs have helped turn the region – known as the Northern Triangle – into the world’s most deadly outside an official conflict zone.
The bloodshed has generated a refugee crisis across the region, and last year prompted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to reopen an office in Belize after an absence of almost 20 years.
But the latest uptick in Spanish-speaking refugees is stoking populist anti-Hispanic sentiments and has prompted the government to adopt a hardline approach which contrasts with Belize’s past generosity – and flies in the face of the country’s international obligations.
Exactly how many new refugees have come to Belize is unknown, but more than 4,000 people have either applied for asylum or been identified as people of concern by the UNHRC. The actual number is likely much higher.
Enrique Cruz, 30, arrived in Bella Vista last year after he was shot on the way home from a friend’s funeral in northern Honduras. He was forced to abandon his barber’s shop and went into hiding, until he made his way to Belize.
Now, Cruz ekes out a leaving by giving haircuts in the doorway of his tiny wooden shack. He can’t afford the work visa that would allow him to get a farm job; he hasn’t applied for asylum for fear of being deported if he is turned down. Cruz feels safe for now, but his situation is precarious and he asked to be referred to by a pseudonym.
This is not the first time this tiny country has harboured victims of neighbouring conflicts. In the 1980s and 1990s, Belize was an oasis of peace amid Central America’s interlocking civil wars between US-supported despots and leftwing guerrillas. It was widely praised for welcoming about 30,000 Spanish-speaking refugees – a 10% increase in the population, which changed the country’s ethnic mix.
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