Monday, March 29, 2010

Article in Africa Review: Stranded moments for immigrants

Foreign women detainees at the General Security Retention Centre in Lebanon. Photo/A CORRESPONDENT

By SARA PERSSON (email the author)

Posted Thursday, March 11 2010 at 11:42

In Summary

  • Around 200,000 migrant workers currently stranded in Lebanon

  • Majority of domestic workers trapped in the Middle East are from Ethiopia, Madagascar, Kenya, West Africa and Morocco

  • Scores of women are lured to the Middle East by agencies' false promises of a new and prosperous life

Charming pre- Biblical landmarks and archaeological delights dot Lebanon, especially for visitors on tour: The natural beautiful wonder Jeita River, even Mount Lebanon that symbolises relaxation. But that is just for tourists; thousands of Africans, lured by this beauty to work here as househelps, have a different picture of this ancient country.

Ms Abebe was only 21 when an employment agency visited her village. The job, as the agents described it, sounded like heaven. But what the agent did not tell her was that as a maid in Lebanon, she was to live among the lowest of the low.

"The family pushes you like they own you," she recalls. "I suffered abuse from the father, his son and his friends. But I was lucky because they never hit me."

After nine months of service, she fled. "I had hoped that if I went to the police, they would help me. But they interrogated me in Arabic, so I couldn’t answer. Then they jailed me because I didn’t have my papers." She was lucky when a Kenyan woman came to her rescue.

Stranded in Lebanon

Abebe is one of 200,000 migrant workers currently in Lebanon, where a large part of the female lot are from Ethiopia, Madagascar, Kenya, West Africa and Morocco.

Low wages make them affordable (the minimum monthly wage for an Ethiopian maid is $100) even in low-income households at the same time as it grants the employer family social status and prestige, and this is a trend apparent all over the Middle East, where the number of female migrant workers has skyrocketed.

At the same time, in 2009, remittances to sub-Saharan Africa from the Middle East amounted to $7 billion, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The women who travel to work in Lebanon are often lured by agencies' false promises of a new and prosperous life in the Middle East. The agencies tend to approach rural areas where people are poor and uneducated. Other women travel because a family member has already done so. But the main driver is poverty.

As Ms Abebe says, the working conditions in most cases are far from ideal, which is not explained to the girls when they are lured by the agents, often from rural areas, under false pretences. Many of the women who arrive in the Middle East have signed a contract they don’t understand.

They have to work long hours, seven days a week, as prisoners in the houses where they live. Agencies often overcharge the workers, thus creating a debt-bondage and because maids don't have employee status, except in Bahrain and Jordan, the girls and women live without any form of legal protection in an environment where physical- and psychological abuse and economic exploitation are common.

Debt bondage

“Some of it derives from a peculiar form of racism that is socio-economic,” Nadim Houry from the Human Rights Watch (HRW) explains. In colloquial Arabic, black people are referred to as abed, which means slave. Maids are seen as property that perform the work that people in the Middle East won’t do themselves.” This form of racism is perhaps best illustrated on the Lebanese beaches where in summertime, you have signs that read; “no domestic workers,” he adds.

Some doctors in Lebanon believe that it is the isolation that has driven some women to commit suicide by jumping from highrise buildings. But the police reports, seen by this paper, are often unclear and in a number of cases, authorities have too quickly concluded that the young women had fallen off buildings while they were cleaning windows.

“Other people have tried to pass off the suicides among migrant workers in the Ethiopian community saying they were crazy and have higher suicide rates anyway,” Nadim Houry at HRW explained in an interview.

In an attempt to halt the number of deaths, Ethiopia recently imposed restrictions on travel to Lebanon. But this only applies to women who are offered a minimum wage that is below $100 per month, and rather than help the situation, it is believed to have fuelled trafficking through third countries like Yemen, a Trafficking in Persons (TIP)-report has found out. The same report argued that by definition, movement of people from one country to another, under coercion and exploitation, is trafficking.

Unable to leave out of debt bondage and illegal exploitation by host families, as well as agencies, many of the women who come to the Middle East end up in prison.

Legal hurdles

In Lebanon, the women are kept in the General Security Retention Centre, an underground prison with no natural light or ventilation, and no hot water, and “aggressive and brutal” male guards.

It is the least transparent prison in Lebanon, in contravention of Lebanese law.

“We could be up to 60 people in one cell at times,” Abebe explained, and adding: “The hygiene was a nightmare and there were no female guardians. At that time of month, women cannot get pads. It was horrible and degrading. They made you move around handcuffed and treated us like villains. Yes, I would rather die than go back there.

Abebe now lives in a legal limbo unable to return to Ethiopia, caught in a debt-bondage between her former host-family, who filed a counter report of theft when she went to the police, and General Security for overstaying her visa. But she has no work permit and cannot get legal representation. She was unable to continue the conversation.

New legislation has been approved in Bahrain, Jordan and Lebanon, but there is no body to enforce the law due to an absent state, lack of clarity and lack of protection against abuse.

Lebanon has been added to the US State Department human trafficking tier 2 watchlist for coercion and exploitation.

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