Over the last few weeks, local news sources in Belize have reported that officials in the country’s immigration and passport offices issued identity documents to an individual linked to an Islamic jihadist organization.
|Rafic Labboun (a.k.a. Rafik Mohammed Labboun|
Allaboun; a.k.a. Wilhelm Dyck) of Hezbollah and
Shia Association of Bay Area (a.k.a. Saba Islamic
Center of San Jose, CA)
This is not the first allegation of fraud in Belize immigration matters. In 2010, a total of 33 Chinese nationals bearing Japanese passports landed at the Belize International Airport on a chartered flight after it had closed operations for the evening. All of them obtained entry documents to Belize. After arrival, all of the migrants disappeared. The Japanese passports on which they traveled were later determined to be fakes. In 2011, prosecutors brought charges against six low-level officials, but the case was so weak that the Chief Magistrate dismissed the case. No charges were brought against higher-level officials who could have known and possibly facilitated the fraud.
Belize isn’t a wealthy country. Most of its public officials receive low salaries. At the same time, the country’s finances are in such dire straits that in August, it failed to make a $23 million interest payment on $547 million of bonds issued by international lenders. It avoided formal default only after making a partial payment in September.
Given the precarious state of the economy on the one hand, and the enormous value of a passport from a peaceful, neutral country such as Belize on the other, it’s not surprising that some degree of corruption exists in immigration matters. The question is, how to best deal with it?
The Belize government has already announced reforms in the process to acquire a Belize passport or other national identity documents. Officials who sign off on applications will be held accountable for their actions.
This is a good start. However, I think another way to address both issues would be with a well-regulated economic citizenship program. During the 1990s, an economic citizenship program existed in Belize, but it was plagued by allegations of corruption. Eventually, it was shut down.
Belize would enjoy substantial benefits if the program were revived and properly regulated. For instance, if the government authorized issuance of 10,000 Belize passports in exchange for a contribution of $75,000, the plan would raise $750 million. Not only would this amount more than retire Belize’s external debt, it would also pay for higher salaries to government officials administering the program. This would greatly reduce incentives for corruption.
To assure all applicants are properly vetted, the government could appoint an external due diligence agency to review all applications for citizenship. It could also make the disposition of the monies raised a matter of public record via an Internet page accessible to any interested party. This step would help to assure funds are disbursed in the manner authorized by law.
Of course, economic citizenship is a controversial topic. Many well-meaning Belize citizens are dead-set against reviving the program. They point not only to the corruption that surrounded it, but express outrage over the sale of their birthright to well-heeled outsiders.
I certainly understand the political sensitivity of this matter. But, would it not be preferable to permit a few thousand wealthy, but law-abiding, foreigners carry Belize passports than to grovel before international donors year after year? From this perspective, a well regulated program that ends automatically after a specific number of passports are issued, with the funds dedicated to a specific public purpose benefiting all citizens, just might find political support.
This article was first published by Mark Nestmann. Copyright © 2012 by Mark Nestmann.
Rafic Labboun is an imam with the Northern California-based Shia Association of Bay Area (Saba Center of San Jose) and Fatimiyya Islamic Center of Hayward.