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BELIZE: Tier 2 Watch List

The Government of Belize does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. These efforts included designating judges to preside over trafficking trials, providing for shelter for male victims for the first time, including anti-trafficking training in police academy training for the first time, sentencing a trafficker to a significant sentence, and opening an investigation against a police officer accused of complicity in a trafficking case. However, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity. The government initiated fewer trafficking investigations, did not convict any traffickers, and identified fewer victims of trafficking. Reports of official complicity in trafficking crimes were common. Because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards, Belize was granted a waiver per the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3. Therefore Belize remained on Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year.

Implement the anti-trafficking law by vigorously investigating and prosecuting traffickers, child sex tourists, and officials complicit in trafficking crimes and imposing strong prison sentences upon those convicted. • Consistently apply formal procedures to identify victims of sex and labor trafficking among vulnerable groups, including workers from China and Cuban medical personnel, and refer identified victims to services. • Strengthen monitoring of alleged traffickers out on bail, reduce court delays, and enable victim video testimony. • Provide adequate funding, including to NGOs, for specialized victim services for all victims, including men and children. • Ensure labor and liquor license inspectors comply with their obligations to conduct inspections and identify victims. • Increase efforts to identify forced labor through recruiter participation in the national labor recruiter registry and prevention programs with migrant workers. • Continue to ensure victims are not penalized for unlawful acts, including immigration violations, traffickers compelled them to commit. • Implement the national anti-trafficking plan in accordance with its agreed timeline and disburse resources for its implementation. • Continue to enforce the prohibition on off-duty police officers providing security for bars and restaurants where commercial sex acts occur.

The government maintained prosecution efforts. The 2013 Trafficking in Persons (Prohibition) Act criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of up to eight years’ imprisonment for offenses involving adult victims, and up to 12 years’ imprisonment for offenses involving child victims. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with other serious crimes, such as rape. Additionally, the 2013 Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (Prohibition) (CSEC) Act criminalized various offenses relating to the prostitution of anyone younger than 18.

The government opened five new investigations during the reporting period. These included one labor trafficking case of a Belizean girl, three sex trafficking cases involving the trafficking of Belizean and Guatemalan girls, and one case of sex and labor trafficking of a female victim. The government additionally reported one investigation of a police officer for potential corruption and complicity in hiding evidence of trafficking; the government was still considering whether to investigate the case under the Trafficking in Persons Act at the end of the reporting period. This is compared to 10 new investigations in 2019 and three in 2018. The government reported continuing nine investigations—three from 2019, four from 2018, and two from 2017. Authorities initiated one new prosecution of one suspect for sex and labor trafficking crimes during the reporting period and continued prosecution of two cases involving five defendants initiated in previous reporting periods; the government did not initiate any prosecutions in the previous reporting period. The government did not report convicting any traffickers during the reporting period, compared to convicting one trafficker for sex and labor trafficking in the previous reporting period. During the current reporting period, courts sentenced the convicted trafficker to six years’ imprisonment for sex trafficking and six years’ imprisonment for labor trafficking. The convicted trafficker escaped prison and was believed to have fled to Guatemala.

The Police Anti-Trafficking Unit (A-TIP) was the police’s dedicated unit of five officers for conducting trafficking investigations and operations. The unit coordinated its trafficking investigations with officials from the Department of Immigration; the Ministry of Human Development, Families, and Indigenous Affairs and its associated departments; the Social Security Board; and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The police unit referred cases to an office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution. The law required all officials to report suspected trafficking cases to the Police A-TIP Unit for investigation. The Police A-TIP Unit had an ongoing partnership with an NGO to provide office space, a dedicated vehicle, and ongoing technical investigative assistance in trafficking cases. The NGO reported the office space provided a secure, private, and nonthreatening location for interviewing trafficking victims and witnesses, collecting evidence, and planning operations. However, law enforcement authorities lacked equipment and personnel to conduct large-scale trafficking investigations effectively. In addition, the police force was spread across a large geographical area, leaving most stations and substations understaffed and unable to pursue trafficking investigations adequately.

The Police A-TIP Unit conducted two raids during the reporting period, one organized by the Immigration Department and one by the Labor Department. Bars, discos, and clubs were closed through most of the reporting period due to the pandemic, resulting in authorities receiving fewer reports of suspected sex trafficking from NGOs. Civil society organizations also reported some illegal brothels reopened in 2021 but moved out of restaurants and bars and into private residences, moving sex trafficking further underground and making reporting cases more difficult.

The judiciary designated one Supreme Court Justice out of five and Magistrate judges to specialize in trafficking cases; these judicial officials, as well as other justices and judges, received anti-trafficking training from a foreign NGO. The courts were closed for most of 2020 for all activity except murder cases and administrative hearings due to the pandemic. The pandemic delayed consideration of cases that had been docketed for trial and sentencing of convicted traffickers, which resulted in one convict absconding before sentencing. Courts remained unable to handle trafficking cases effectively and efficiently due to the scarcity of human and fiscal resources; the government decreased the 2020-2021 judiciary annual budget by 15 percent.

Limited intelligence gathering and inconsistent application of formal victim identification procedures hampered the identification of trafficking crimes. Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year. During the reporting period, civil society organizations reported some police officers took bribes to ignore incidents of trafficking, to facilitate illegal border crossings, to not report suspected victims and perpetrators, to alert establishments where trafficking was likely to occur of pending law enforcement action, and to stonewall or sabotage investigations of reported cases within their jurisdiction. Observers decried the slow official response to reports of potential trafficking and complicity.

The government maintained efforts to protect victims. Authorities identified 20 potential victims in 2020, compared to 24 potential victims in 2019 and 17 potential victims in 2018. The victims included two men, three women, three boys, and twelve girls. The government did not report how many were victims of sex trafficking and how many of labor trafficking. The government referred two victims to shelters and reported providing other care to all 20, although it did not specify which services the victims received. The government reported assisting all the foreign victims with repatriation. The government reported the Police A-TIP Unit screened prison inmates during the reporting period to identify potential trafficking victims who may have been mistakenly penalized due to insufficient screening; authorities identified one female who was a potential trafficking victim in the prison population. In the previous reporting period, authorities identified seven potential trafficking victims who were later found not to have been victims of trafficking, one of whom chose to remain in Belize and received services during the current reporting period.

The government reported the Police A-TIP Unit conducted screening for trafficking indicators and responded to referrals while adhering to the guidelines set out by the National Oversight Committee. The government incorporated training on screening procedures into the police academy syllabus for the first time during the reporting period. The government reported Immigration and Labor Department officials trained in victim identification and referral also routinely screened for human trafficking during each investigation. The government reported that when Immigration Department officials conducted immigration enforcement operations, they coordinated with the Police A-TIP Unit, which assisted with screening detainees and identifying victims of trafficking. The government reported the Department of Social Services officers were available to provide victim services if needed. The government reported the Police A-TIP Unit had trained female officers to conduct screenings for female victims. The government reported screening could occur in Spanish or English. The government reported the screening process emphasized that trafficked victims could not be penalized for unlawful acts they were compelled to commit, including immigration violations. However, due to gaps in identification procedures, authorities may have punished mis- or unidentified victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit, and victims’ fear of detention or deportation may have contributed to their reluctance to report trafficking to law enforcement officers. Civil society reported that the liquor licensing department routinely failed to conduct inspections of bars and restaurants where commercial sex was known to be offered, largely to avoid investigations into possible human trafficking; these allegations became less frequent after the closure of bars, clubs, and discos due to the pandemic. The Anti-Trafficking in Persons (A-TIP) Council and an NGO continued to review and update standard operating procedures (SOPs) for victim identification. The government reported law enforcement, immigration, and social services officials used the SOPs while conducting interviews and screening potential victims for trafficking indicators. The government reported that for foreign victims, authorities contacted the relevant embassies for potential consular services. Victims identified during the screening process could also apply for refugee status. The government reported adapting several victim protection procedures due to the pandemic, including social distancing, quarantining victims, and providing health screenings. Observers reported more consistency in victim identification than in previous years but stated gaps still existed, such as authorities failing to respond to credible reports of potential trafficking victims by NGOs, possibly leading to fewer victim identifications and weak victim protection. Media reported Chinese workers at a Chinese government-funded construction project may have been victims of forced labor. The number of Cuban medical professionals in Belize grew to 59 in March 2020 due to the pandemic. The government did not report screening the Cuban workers for trafficking indicators.

DHS lacked resources to aid victims as required by the law. While the law stipulated the government should provide psychosocial counseling, housing, food, education, and refugee and worker status to victims and potential victims of trafficking, the government had a limited ability to consistently support victims during criminal proceedings and reintegration. NGOs often provided the necessary services and shared their costs with the government. The government reported assigning two Spanish-speaking social workers to all trafficking cases to ensure victim safety and support, but that they were not sufficient for the number of victims.

The government coordinated and funded shelter, medical, and psychological services to adult victims through the Alternative Care Unit and to child victims through the Child Protection System and foster care. The government lacked sufficient public shelter space for all victims and partnered with domestic violence NGOs to provide shelter and services to adult female trafficking victims. During the reporting period the Ministry of Human Development, Families, and Indigenous Affairs made arrangements with an NGO to shelter male victims for the first time; the government did not report any male victims using the shelter during the reporting period. Government and NGO service providers developed victim care plans with victim participation with the goal of encouraging independence, and these plans allowed adult victims to stay in shelters or safe houses, and placed children in the child protection system or in family care and independent living upon reaching adulthood. Per the SOPs, DHS procured subsidized services for disabled trafficking victims, including sign language interpretation; all social workers were trained in basic sign language. DHS reported it improved and adjusted programs and care provided to trafficking victims based on victim feedback.

Government social workers monitored foster care placements for child victims and developed individual case plans for each child, which included a home study to determine if placement was in the best interest of the child. Experts expressed concerns about the lack of education on trafficking for some foster parents, uneven coordination and communication between government agencies and foster parents, and limited availability of psychosocial care in general, including for trafficking victims. Child victims could access the educational system until age 14.

The government did not allocate a specific amount within the anti-trafficking budget for victim services; it reported actual spending of 35,000 Belizean dollars ($17,500) during the reporting period, compared to 109,000 Belizean dollars ($54,500) in 2019, which included food, clothing, medical expenses, counseling, stipends, and repatriation expenses, among other services.

The government reported it did not place conditions or time limits on the services provided to victims cooperating with law enforcement or prosecutors. The government reported victims could stay in separate chambers from their accused traffickers during court proceedings. The government allowed victims to provide testimony through video but lacked the equipment necessary to do so during the reporting period. As an interim measure, victims had the option of testifying from behind a screen in the court, protecting the victim’s identity. The law also allowed for written statements to be provided as evidence in cases where repatriated foreign victims did not wish to return. The government reported counseling was available during testimony. During the reporting period, the government did not report any cases of victims assisting with an active prosecution. The government reported it encouraged victims to participate but did not compel them; court delays and fear of retaliation by traffickers may have led foreign national victims to decline or withdraw cooperation with law enforcement and return to their home countries. Even those who wished to assist in prosecution were sometimes unavailable to do so, having chosen repatriation or onward migration in the years between. The government reported it provided foreign victims of human trafficking with the same victim services as domestic victims. Authorities did not deport foreign victims identified in potential trafficking cases, and they could grant temporary residency status and work permits regardless of victims’ cooperation with investigations or prosecutions. A court could order restitution upon a trafficker’s conviction but did not do so in 2020.

The police unit acted as the primary provider for counter-trafficking training throughout the country, training prison officials, immigration officers, customs agents, and any other officials who might encounter potential victims. The police unit conducted training sessions year-round for immigration officers, customs agents, regular police units and the police academy, special branch officers, prison guards and officials, and truancy officers on screening procedures to identify victims and the requirement of all officials to immediately report suspected trafficked cases. Authorities reported some of the training during the reporting period moved to virtual platforms due to the pandemic, and a few trainings were postponed. The government funded these trainings, including transportation, facilitators, and venues. In April 2020, the National Organization for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, a government entity, funded training for 58 teachers and education officials from eight public and private shelters on identifying trafficking victims. In May and June 2020, the A-TIP Council and an international organization held a workshop with 118 tourism sector workers to create awareness of human trafficking, victim identification, and referral procedures. In July 2020, the government provided support for participants in an NGO-led and foreign government-funded workshop for 170 members of the Belize Defense Force, customs officers, police officers, Coast Guard officers, teachers, and staff from the Ministry of Human Development, Families, and Indigenous Affairs on Protection and Enabling Environment for Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence.

The government slightly increased its prevention efforts. The government enacted and funded a national action plan for 2021-2023 in March 2021. The government’s main national coordinating body for counter-trafficking efforts in addition to the police unit was the A-TIP Council. The Council developed and implemented an anti-trafficking policy, including identification and screening of potential victims, victim services, investigation supervision, and public outreach and awareness campaigns. The head of the Ministry of Human Development, Families, and Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs was the designated chair of the A-TIP Council. The A-TIP Council was composed of representatives of the Ministry of Human Development, Families, and Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade, and Immigration; the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution; the Belize Police Department; the Department of Labor; the Department of Customs; the Health Department; the Belize Tourism Board; the National Committee for Families and Children; and two NGOs. The A-TIP Council met quarterly during the reporting period and three subcommittees (Operations; Information, Education, and Communication; and Monitoring and Evaluation) met more regularly. The A-TIP Council chair also served simultaneously in several other official positions, including Chair of the COVID-19 task force, due to personnel and resource limitations. The government allocated 200,000 Belizean dollars ($100,000) for anti-trafficking activities during the reporting period, the same as for the past three years; the government maintained this level of funding in the budget for the next reporting period, despite budgeting less for other priorities for the upcoming year.

During the reporting period, the government implemented its national action plan, although the pandemic caused some activities to be included in the new 2021-2023 national action plan. Specifically, pandemic-related travel restrictions and border closures delayed implementation of a foreign university project to conduct a baseline study of sex trafficking in the country. The A-TIP Council reported it analyzed victim profiles, trafficking routes, and trafficker profiles to inform workplans and improve anti-trafficking efforts. The A-TIP Council systematically documented the government’s efforts on human trafficking in the areas of prevention, prosecution, protection, and partnerships and maintained an associated database. The quarterly A-TIP Council meetings also monitored efforts to evaluate the implementation of the national action plan. During the reporting period, the government participated in a regional human trafficking study led by CARIFORUM, a subgroup of the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States.

The government reported using social media, press releases, media appearances, billboards, and signage to raise awareness of trafficking for migrants, other vulnerable groups, and the general public. An NGO operated the 24/7 “crime stoppers” hotline; it did not report receiving any trafficking-related calls and the police reported no investigations resulted from the hotline during the reporting period. Printed materials for the awareness campaign included the hotline number. The police also could be contacted at the 24/7 national emergency number.

The Department of Labor reported strengthening regulations related to labor recruitment and the Ministries of Immigration and Agriculture led discussions with employers to implement the new regulations. The labor code required labor recruiters to register with the national labor recruiter registry, but the government reported that none did so during the reporting period. The government reported the pandemic precluded many outreach efforts to labor recruiters to encourage participation in the registry, but authorities and civil society partners conducted outreach in English, Spanish, and Kriol to migrant workers to advise these workers of their rights. Authorities reported that Belize Trade and Investment Development Services, a government entity, also offered sessions on labor rights that included information on trafficking and conducted quarterly labor rights workshops with entrepreneurs and small businesses with the Department of Labor. The regulations required foreign workers to obtain a work permit from the Employment Permit Committee before they engaged in any form of paid work; this body included a social service officer responsible for identifying vulnerable groups or individuals. The government did not have defined guidelines for foreign worker recruitment, but an international organization assisted in developing a migrant worker recruitment policy that remained under review at the end of the reporting period. A separate draft temporary employment policy excluded foreign workers from certain job positions that were especially attractive to traffickers, including bar and nightclub waitresses, cooks, common laborers, small business clerks and managerial staff, waitresses in other establishments, supervisors, security guards, domestic workers, caregivers, and construction helpers. Authorities also reported undertaking a review of immigration regulations, including guidance for issuing of work permits for immigrants. Labor inspectors reported a shortage of qualified personnel, vehicles, fuel, and operating funds to conduct adequate inspections for labor violations. The government reported the 23 labor inspectors who had an annual requirement to inspect every business, farm, and industry in the country were insufficient to perform thorough inspections.

In December 2020, the A-TIP Council and an international organization supported and conducted training for tourism sector officials, including 23 tourism police officers and 11 community police and other officers. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The law allowed for Belizean citizens to be tried for trafficking and child sex tourism crimes committed abroad. In March 2020, the government closed the international airport, sealed the land and sea borders, and denied entry to cruise ships, though the airport reopened in October 2020. The government reported no cases of child sex tourism inside the country or involving Belizeans elsewhere, possibly due to the low number of tourists because of the pandemic. The government reported sponsoring billboards to combat child sex tourism at the international airport and at border crossing points. The government did not train diplomats on trafficking during the reporting period. The government participated in a multicountry program to identify and deny tourist entry to registered sex offenders.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Belize, and traffickers exploit victims from Belize abroad. Groups considered most at risk for trafficking in Belize include adults, children, LGBTQI+ persons, migrants, and groups that faced greater vulnerability due to pandemic-related unemployment. Sex traffickers exploit Belizean and foreign adults and girls and LGBTQI+ persons, primarily from Central America, in bars, nightclubs, hotels, and brothels. Due to the pandemic, sex trafficking during the reporting period moved more frequently to more tightly controlled illegal brothels rather than bars and clubs. Tourism-related industries lure laborers through the offer of legitimate service jobs and exploit them in sex trafficking. These illicit operations are typically small in scale and unconnected to organized transnational trafficking rings. Family members facilitate the sex trafficking of Belizean women and girls, including through an arrangement where a wealthy male will offer payment or gifts to a family in exchange for sex from a young, usually female, family member. Foreign adults and children—particularly from Central America, Mexico, and Asia—migrate voluntarily to Belize in search of work, and traffickers often exploit victims using false promises of relatively high-paying jobs or take advantage of migrants’ illegal status and exploit them in forced labor in restaurants, shops, domestic work, and agriculture. The law did not provide refugees and irregular migrants with work permits, placing them at constant threat of deportation that could increase their vulnerability to trafficking. Labor trafficking likely decreased in 2020 as a result of pandemic-related border closures. Chinese and Indian nationals may be exploited in Belize in domestic service. Chinese workers in Belize may have been forced to work in construction by Chinese employers. Cuban workers in Belize may have been forced to work by the Cuban government. In tourist regions, foreign child sex tourists, primarily from the United States, exploit child sex trafficking victims. NGOs reported police and immigration officers took bribes in return for ignoring trafficking, facilitating illegal entries, failing to report suspected victims and perpetrators, and failing to act on reported cases under their jurisdiction.

U.S. Department of State

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