Hundreds standing outside near an Addis Ababa Bole International Airport terminal anxiously awaited the news of the safe landing of an Ethiopian Airlines plane that took off from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. Elsewhere, such news might have been greeted with cheers and whoops of joy by ecstatic relatives of travelling loved ones. But flights out of Lebanon landing in Ethiopia often trigger far more grim reactions. Cargo flights set off on this route on increasingly frequent trips to offload the corpses of Ethiopian migrant workers, often victims of horrifying abuse at the hands of Lebanese employers turned captors. On this occasion, seven bodies were being flown home for burials. The sight of coffins being loaded onto the airport tarmac in Addis Ababa triggered wailing among heartbroken mothers and other loved ones. Most were clad in traditional black mourning attire.
Netsanet Mathewos was among those present. “I cried with people I had never met before. Our pain and loss are identical,” she told Addis Standard.
Her cousin Lediya Bekele had worked as a domestic worker in Lebanon for years, but had returned home to visit family in her hometown near Arbaminch as recently as September. Barely two months after returning to Lebanon, the 28-year old’s body was among the seven aboard the Ethiopian Airlines cargo flight. Lediya had spent the last two months of her life working at the home of a married couple and their two children. Netsanet says Lediya had previously told her that she feared her employers, in particular the husband, without specifying why. Netsanet has attempted to reach out to the employers to get some answers as to what led to the death of her cousin, unsuccessfully thus far. “They (the employers) blocked me on WhatsApp. I tried to call them to get information, but they are rejecting all phone calls from Ethiopian numbers. We still don’t know what happened.”
Woinshet Nigusseie meanwhile, worked for about a year and a half in conditions that caused her health complications and exposed her to a severe case of pneumonia, her family says. Her family aren’t aware of what exactly she was subjected to during her employment. All they know is that she somehow managed to get out and reach the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut to arrange her departure to Ethiopia. It took a full month for the consulate to finish her documentation and facilitate her departure to Ethiopia. By then her condition had worsened. On October 31st, she made her way to Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. Sometime prior to boarding, she collapsed and died.
“Nobody. We haven’t been told anything,” says her brother Addis Ababa, when asked if any government body had contacted the family yet.
Aklilu Tatere Woube, acting ambassador at the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut told Addis Standard that the death toll statistic of seven was inflated. “We know of two deaths,” he told Addis Standard over the phone. “The bodies of two women were on that cargo flight that landed in Addis Ababa. Not seven.”
But when asked to identify the two victims, he appeared unwilling to do so. “I don’t have that information as its not in my department,” was his explanation.
The acting ambassador claimed that the consulate is investigating the deaths and that ample information surrounding them is currently unavailable. What is known is that due to the consulate’s recent passing of a new policy changing its working protocol, it has downgraded its involvement in rescuing Ethiopian women employed in Lebanon. The decision means the likelihood of consular staff making an effort to prevent such untimely deaths, has dropped considerably. It also means that the steady stream of coffins being shipped from Lebanon to Ethiopia, won’t be slowing any time soon.
New ambassador, new rules
In August, Ethiopian Ambassador to Lebanon Mohammed Berihu stepped down. It is then that the former Chargé d’Affaires, Aklilu Tatere Woube, became head of the mission. It is under his watch that the strict new policy of non engagement with regards to endangered domestic workers came into force. Unless the order comes directly from the Foreign Ministry in Addis Ababa, it will no longer accommodate Ethiopians coming in person to the consular office inquiring for help. Without a written request from the Foreign Ministry in Addis Ababa, Beirut based consular staff have been rejecting pleas for help in freeing Ethiopian domestic workers trapped in cycles of violence, starvation and enslavement at the hands of their Lebanese employers. Prior to September, the near entirety of cases that were brought to the consulate’s attention over the last decade or so were done so by concerned fellow citizens who witness and promptly report abuses. Other cases of abuse are reported by activists and members of Ethiopian non-profit organisations and rights groups run by Ethiopian expats in Lebanon. These activists and group members operate help phone lines and social media pages where victims and their families can make them aware of their situation. The consulate is then notified of these cases when group representatives or activists show up at its Beirut office and request diplomatic intervention.
But this will no longer be the case. As a result of the consulate’s change in modus operandi, those languishing under abusive working conditions must wait for their families in Ethiopia to submit requests in person at the Foreign Ministry’s Addis Ababa headquarters. The majority of Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle East hail from rural parts of the country, some as far as 600, 700 or 800km away from Addis Ababa. This means for many, simply being heard will require their parents to travel across the country for trips that may last a day or two. Families must then submit requests that are examined and receive stamps of approval before being forwarded to the consulate in Beirut. The consulate has essentially managed to get the Foreign Ministry to shoulder what was its own burden. As a result, victims and their families aren’t to expect any sort of assistance whatsoever prior to the completion of bureaucratic procedures in two different countries.
This process, Ethiopian activists and community leaders in Lebanon say, is time consuming and likely to leave the most vulnerable of women to fend for themselves.
“It’s like they’ve sentenced their own fellow citizens to death,” says Banchi Yimer, founder of the Lebanese based Ethiopian migrant rights organisation, Egna Legna. “As an organisation, we get around 5 to 7 cases daily of women suffering horrific abuse, with some on the brink of suicide. The time it’ll take us to instruct families to forward cases to the Foreign Ministry in Addis Ababa, will be long enough to cost women their lives.”
Addis Standard has been made aware of just how difficult the consulate’s decision has made the application process for some families. Case in point, the plight of the family of Genzeb Worku. Genzeb was born in the rural Efrata Gidim district of the Amhara countryside, some 130km north east of Addis Ababa, where her father Worku Azbitew and mother Alem-ayehu Mamo still reside. In September of 2017, she traveled to Lebanon for employment as a domestic worker. Since then, her parents have not heard from her and are desperate for news confirming that she is still alive.
“The family contacted us asking for help in finding their daughter,” Selamawit Tesfaye, an Ethiopian activist and member of Beirut based migrants’ rights organisation Fikat told Addis Standard. “We asked the consulate for help, but they told us they couldn’t do anything without authorisation from Addis Ababa.”
There are no roads leading to the family’s home in their Efrata Gidim farming community. Genzeb’s parents traveled by foot to the nearby Arso Amba regional administration office. There they obtained an official letter from the administrator confirming their residing in the area and requesting assistance from the Foreign Ministry in helping the family find their daughter. Afterwards, a nephew took the letter to the nearby city of Debre Birhan and boarded a bus to Addis Ababa. It has been a month since Genzeb’s parents submitted their official plea for consular assistance via the Foreign Ministry. The family is yet to hear anything on the fate of their daughter and aren’t aware if even a search for her has commenced.
Addis Standard contacted the Foreign Ministry’s Spokesman Nebiat Getachew to get some clarity into the consulate’s newest procedural move. According to him, the Foreign Ministry has not issued any such orders prohibiting consular cooperation with Ethiopian citizens in Lebanon.
“As far as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is concerned, there is no such thing,” he said. “The consulate is supposed to accept all reports of abuse. People are perhaps confusing the consulate’s referral of citizens who have suffered abuses and are seeking insurance awards to present authenticated documents to the MFA.”
But activists on the ground say there is no confusion over what they are told. “My colleague was told to leave the premises,” Banchi Yimer tells Addis Standard. “We are told that this is now between families and the government, and that we aren’t to be involved.”
“If the consulate refuses to take cases directly from Ethiopians in Lebanon, it should just be shut down as it’s a waste of Ethiopian tax payer money. Other embassies go to great lengths to protect their citizens. Ours’ is an embarrassment.”
When pressed about the new policy, Aklilu Tatere Woube denied its existence.
“This is simply untrue. We’ve never prevented anyone from coming here with cases,” the acting ambassador said. “Decisions like this would have to go through me and I’d never okay such a thing.”
But the acting ambassador’s denials contrast with what activists and the family of Genzeb Worku have experienced. In addition to this, Addis Standard was able to obtain audio of what appears to be a heated Amharic language conversation recorded in October between two consulate staff members and the clearly distressed family member of a missing domestic worker. The recorded conversation took place at the consulate in Beirut. The family member, who’ll be referred to as Hilina, shared the audio file with Addis Standard. In it, Hilina begs diplomats for help only to be told by one she identified as being Amha Ayele, a consular staff employee posted in Beirut that “this is why we tell people not to travel here for work purposes. There’s nothing we can do.”
Another employee, identified as being the consulate’s receptionist Felekech Meles is heard on the audio file saying “we need a letter from the consulate attached with your complaint.” Later the relative is told by Amha that, “the Foreign Ministry will send the notice by mail, but as there’s disturbances here, we might not get the mail right away.” He appears to be referring to the ongoing Lebanese revolution that may have perturbed the country’s mailing system.
In the recording, Amha almost appears to be insinuating that the Lebanese revolution bringing postal services to a halt prevents them from receiving communiques, and thus renders them incapable of intervening in such cases.
“I’ve gone twice to the consulate and each time, I’m told they’re yet to receive anything from Addis Ababa,” an exasperated Hilina said. “Each time, they repeat that they are powerless. In the meantime, I don’t know if my cousin is being starved or tortured.
All indications point to the new working procedure requiring a Foreign Ministry response being actively enforced. But the lack of clarity surrounding the issue and the denials by the acting ambassador suggest that there may be no legal basis for it. With his statements made to Addis Standard, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nebiat Getachew appeared to imply that any such policy enforced in Beirut would be a rogue move made in Beirut, blindsiding Addis Ababa, and thus invalid.
Kafala: institutional oppression
There are around 300,000 Ethiopian women employed as domestic workers in homes across Lebanon. The women who make the trip do so fleeing poverty and a lack of opportunities back home. The prospects of earning crucial income that could change the fortunes of loved ones in Ethiopia are what have seen women flock in large numbers towards Lebanon and other countries across the Middle East over the last two decades. But the opportunities come with great risk to their lives and wellbeing. In Lebanon, where women from across Africa and South East Asia work as house helpers, the legal system under which their employee rights are covered is the internationally condemned kafala system. The kafala system, which grants employers the right to maintain an oppressive overlord presence of sorts, has opened the door to Lebanese employers meting out horrific abuses against their domestic workers. The likes of Human Rights Watch have documented migrant worker complaints of salary being withheld, physical and sexual abuse, and murder.
Due to the kafala system being globally condemned and directly linked to deaths and trauma of countless migrant workers, a considerable number of Lebanese journalists and outspoken citizens lobby for its abolition. In a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera, Lebanese researcher Joey Ayoub called on fellow citizens to capitalise on the spirit of the ongoing Lebanese revolution that has called for an end to authoritarianism to bring about the end of the discriminatory system. “If we are calling for our rights, we need to be extending our concerns to foreign workers as well,” he wrote. However, there’s little to suggest that Lebanese protesters, who unseated President Saad Hariri and brought the country to a standstill, have included safeguarding the dignity of migrant workers amongst their demands.
Under the kafala system, victims of such abuses have no legal recourse and nowhere to turn to. Due to there being no meaningful Lebanese government initiatives to halt the scourge, the abuse eventually reached its current peak point where an average of two maids lose their lives every week. Only in rare cases of diplomatic intervention of their respective embassies could migrant workers realistically expect to see police intervene on their behalf. However, for Ethiopian victims, this avenue had been closed off to them for years, even prior to the decision made in September, as the country’s Beirut based consulate has made little effort to conceal an open unwillingness to intervene on behalf of its citizens. This despite the fact that Ethiopians bear the brunt of kafala system brutalities in Lebanon and make up the lion’s share of the dead. There have been rare incidents of consular staff almost begrudgingly working alongside activists to rescue victims of abuse. But the consulate deciding to abide by its new non engagement policy now ends all possibilities of collaboration between members of the community and the consulate.
For Ethiopians, many of whom are prohibited access to mobile phones by their employers, the only way they can relay their plight to the outside world is by begging neighbors or witnesses to quickly notify Ethiopian authorities. As of September those neighbors and witnesses would now have to contact the victim’s relatives instead with instructions for them to contact the Foreign Ministry in Addis Ababa. The Foreign Ministry is an office already bogged down by dealing with international affairs from around the world, further dragging the lengthy process. It could be weeks, even months before the proper paperwork is completed and leads to an order being passed down from Addis Ababa to Beirut. Such delays could be what led to the death of another of the seven, Mekedes Gadisa. Her family says that they contacted the Foreign Ministry on her behalf. It would be in vain.
Addis Ababa native Mekedes Gadisa was only 21 when she died of a yet to be specified illness on October 19th in a story similar to that of Woinshet Nigusse. While there are few details available thus far on exactly what led to her passing, there has been a precedence for domestic workers dying of illnesses related to exposure to the elements, poor sanitation, lack of food and other forms of poor treatment. Timely intervention could save lives. Last year, an especially heart-wrenching race to save the life of a teenager proved this. Agere Mandefrot had barely turned 16 when she left her hometown of Dejen in the Amhara region for Lebanon. According to her mother, she spent a year and a half working for a Lebanese family in the city of Zgharta where she was also starved, beaten and forced to work long hours seven days a week. She was severely weakened and spitting blood when her employers, Raymond Tawk and his wife Najwa Hussein Tawk, finally released her to travel home. She arrived in Addis Ababa in a wheelchair, malnourished, sickly and close to death. Her family took her to the city’s Pawlos Hospital. While hospitalized, she told family members that Najwa not only starved and beat her, but had pushed her down the stairs on one occasion. She died three days later, aged only 17. A medical examination after her death determined that the once healthy Agere had developed blood cancer sometime during her employment at the Tawk residence, but had never received medical treatment. No one has been charged in her death.
Agere Mandefro suffered unbearably during her employment at a home in Zgharta. Deprived of food and continuously beaten over the course of a year, she passed away a mere three days after arriving back home in Ethiopia last year.
In Lebanon, deaths of the likes of Agere have long become the norm. Long before the controversial move by the consulate in September, it had garnered a reputation for turning a blind eye to mounting reports of mistreatment, rapes, murders and enslavement. An Addis Standard investigation earlier this year unveiled patterns of systematic neglect amongst consular staff members who are tasked with taking up cases of abuse. The backlash led to the brief recalling to Addis Ababa of two consular staff members exposed for their personal roles in the scandal, Samson Abebe Telila and Nigusse Bedaso Mola. But a month or so later, both men were dispatched back to Beirut, with Samson Abebe Telila even receiving a promotion and becoming the consulate’s First Secretary.
The new policy may have been a way of preventing further media coverage of the Ethiopian consulate’s generally lackadaisical attitude towards the horrors inflicted upon fellow Ethiopians. With the new protocol in place, staff in Beirut can direct people to point fingers of blame away from them and towards the Foreign Ministry in Addis Ababa. But this didn’t get the heat off their back, as in October, a consortium of Ethiopian activist and community groups in Beirut penned an open letter to the Prime Minister in Ethiopia. In the letter, the groups call on the Ethiopian government to upgrade the consulate to an embassy and dismiss staff members they describe as uncaring, uninvolved and working on behalf of abusive employers across Lebanon.
Under fire consulate irate over media attention
The letter got ample media coverage, with the BBC’s Amharic language service,Open Democracy and the Lebanese Daily Star all according coverage to the open letter. Media coverage was highly critical of the Ethiopian mission to Lebanon, with the BBC’s coverage highlighting that at least 34 Ethiopian domestic workers had died in Lebanon in 2019. Meanwhile, in July an activist told Addis Standard that the death toll had actually surpassed 50.
After the unprecedented backlash, consular staff hit back at those who slammed their practices in the open letter to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Although it has refrained from making any statements in response to the letter condemning its practices, Addis Standard has obtained a communique sent out by the consulate to Ethiopian community leaders in Lebanon. In it, the author, presumed to be acting ambassador Aklilu Tatere Woube accuses community leaders of attempting to create a rift between the consulate and Ethiopians, “spreading false information in the media with the goal of ruining ties between Ethiopia and Lebanon.” The author makes a number of allegations, including that activists and community leaders are corrupt and calls for their removals.
Official consular letter to the Ethiopian community has the institution lash out at individuals who took to media to complain about the consulate’s inaction
The Beirut based institution’s bizarre antics and the standoff between Ethiopians in Lebanon and the consulate mandated to represent them in the country didn’t go unnoticed in Addis Ababa. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nebiat Getachew confirmed to Addis Standard that he intended on sending a fact finding delegation to Beirut soon. “We are sending a delegation in search of lasting solutions to problems there,” he assured. The jury is out on whether concrete action will be taken to curtail a longstanding problem deeply rooted in the under-fire Beirut based institution.