Abandoned in Lebanon, African domestic workers just want to go home

Outside Ethiopia’s consulate in Lebanon’s capital Beirut, about 60 young women brace themselves for another night of sleeping on the street. They used to be employed as housekeepers, but the combination of a crippling economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic meant that they were laid off and kicked out of their employers’ homes.

These women are desperate to return home. But after being abandoned — usually without pay — they can’t afford a plane ticket home, and there is little prospect of further income. “There’s no money or jobs here,” said Genet, an 18-year-old Ethiopian woman. She’s sleeping on concrete, cushioned only by a thin blanket. “I suffered too much, even before becoming homeless. I just want to return to my family.”

Since May, thousands of domestic workers of various nationalities have been abandoned by their Lebanese employers who claimed they were no longer able to afford to pay them. Under Lebanon’s notorious kafala system, through which visas are sponsored by individual employers, these workers have little to no rights and no means of redress.

Members of Egna Legna Besidet, an organisation run by Ethiopian domestic workers, visit the women outside the consulate twice a day to deliver food and sanitation items. “We are trying to find them shelter,” volunteer Hana Ashenafi told the Mail & Guardian. “But until we do, I deliver food and drink here twice a day. I also go to the embassies of Kenya, Sudan and Gambia before my day ends. These women are in danger of starving and their governments aren’t doing anything.”

Whereas the Philippines organised repatriation flights to bring many of their 30 000-odd nationals in Lebanon back home this year, African governments have been hesitant or unwilling to do the same.

A CNN report revealed that Kenyan consular staff encouraged women to take up sex work to pay for their airfare. After the explosion, frustration boiled over and Kenyan women turned on their consulate, protesting outside it and demanding staff facilitate their departures home.

Like Kenya, Ethiopia has also been heavily criticised for its perceived neglect of stranded citizens in Lebanon. In an emailed response to the Mail & Guardian, Tsion Teklu, a state minister at Ethiopia’s foreign ministry, denied that the government was unresponsive and declared that a plan to identify and repatriate citizens had registered some success. He said that more than 250 migrant workers had been able to pay for their own return tickets, while an additional 165 tickets were booked by individual donors and charities.

‘We are tired of fighting to survive’

“I just want to go home, even if I find work I won’t want to stay.” Tsion, like her compatriot Genet, is also 18. She has been scarred by her experiences in Lebanon.

“I spent a year and six months working in a home. They let me eat once a day and when I complained, my employer would hit me. He once punched me in the mouth and my teeth bled. I was never paid. They owe me 18 months of pay. When I complained about not being paid, they took me to a police station and falsely accused me of theft.”

It is not uncommon for employers to falsely accuse domestic workers of theft to avoid having to pay salaries. Tsion spent five months at a women’s incarceration facility and had nowhere to go to when she was released just weeks ago. She has been spending her days on the pavement outside the consulate for the past two weeks now.

Genet, who was initially reluctant to share her story, decides to open up when she hears Tsion speak. 

“I escaped my employer’s home in Baalbek where I worked for a year. He was abusive, a horrible man, and he owed me six months pay. But he told the police that I had stolen the family’s gold and gave them a description of me. They caught me. I spent a year and three months in prison for nothing.”

Genet says that her case was never taken to a judge and she would likely have never left had she not caught Covid-19 in the cramped prison. “After I started coughing they let me out. The others were afraid to approach me. That’s why I’m out now. I couldn’t even contact my family during my time in prison. My brother thought I was dead until I called him last month.”

Under the kafala system, women like Genet and Tsion are ineligible for legal representation and have no legal redress when abused. 

Lebanon’s labour restrictions for migrants has garnered global condemnation. The death of Ghanaian domestic worker Faustina Tay last March — and Lebanon’s subsequent refusal to prosecute her abusive employers — severely tarnished the country’s image. According to the country’s general security intelligence agency, on average two domestic workers die in Lebanon every week. Many are driven to suicide by the constant abuse, or killed.

Last Saturday, Lebanese Labour Minister Lamia Yammine announced in a tweet that her office would soon implement a proposed amendment to migrant worker laws that would “abolish the sponsorship system and enshrines the rights of migrant domestic workers”. 

It is unclear if the proposed amendments to the kafala system would entail the inclusion of migrant workers in the country’s labour law. But most domestic workers just want to go home.

Migrant domestic worker lobby group This is Lebanon, known for using Facebook to publicly shame employers into halting their abuse, launched a crowdfunding drive to support the repatriation of stranded migrant workers. Patricia, a case worker with the group who uses a pseudonym to avoid endangering colleagues, says the lackadaisical approach of African governments towards their citizens in Lebanon is what’s behind their initiative that has thus raised more than $33 000.

“They are all trying their hardest to avoid shouldering the costs,” Patricia told the Mail & Guardian. “Not just Ethiopia, other countries too. The president of Sierra Leone arrived in Beirut to receive medical treatment but hasn’t bothered to ask about his nationals who are stuck here. As for women from smaller countries such as Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, only God knows how they’ll ever get home.

“Tweaking the kafala system would be too little too late for hundreds of thousands of women who need rescuing. Domestic workers aren’t interested in staying.” 

The Middle East Eye reported last week that some 38 stranded Gambian domestic workers similarly had their repatriation costs covered by a nongovernmental organisation, after their government refused to shoulder the burden. 

“It’s like prolonging the nightmare,” said Ashenafi, the volunteer. “We are tired of fighting to survive. The abusive working conditions, being thrown out and then the explosion. How much more terror must we experience before our lives start to matter?”

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Zecharias Zelalem
Zecharias Zelalem is an Ethiopian journalist with Addis Standard and focuses on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa as a whole

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