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3 Ways to Help Lebanon’s Migrant Workers

August 18, 2020
Ethiopian domestic workers wearing masks sit together with their belongings in front of the Ethiopian consulate in Hazmiyeh, Lebanon, June 8, 2020. (Photo: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)
Photos: Beirut Migrant Community Center | Instagram/@polleksandra

Lebanon is facing one of the biggest crises in its history in the aftermath of the Beirut blast, which has left the city in ruin. Compounded by economic hardship, political upheaval, popular unrest, a global pandemic, and a crackdown by the regime on dissent, Lebanese society is bracing for tough times ahead.

One segment of society for which hardship predates the disastrous blast is the county’s migrant community, specifically African domestic workers. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Lebanon has approximately 250,000 migrant domestic workers, the majority of whom are women from African and South East Asian countries.

Migrant labour, namely in the contraction and domestic labour fields, in Lebanon and Arab Gulf countries is regulated under the Kafala (sponsorship) system, which gives local employers undue control over their foreign employees and is often compared to modern-day slavery.


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Following the #BeirutBlast now more than ever we urge the government to end all reparation requirements These women need to be sent home now! Last week Banchi Yimer (@BanchiELB) the founder of @egnalegna tweeted these words below… “We call upon Lebanese government to treat our sisters like victims of abuse not criminals. Women who finish their contract should be free to leave. Not slaves of their madame. The ones who haven’t been paid for months shouldn’t have to worry about police charges. We call upon Lebanese people and media to highlight issue and feel our pain and have mercy on vulnerable women who suffer since the financial crisis.“ @thisislebanon961 #AbolishKafala #Kafala #EndKafala #KafalaSystem #Lebanon #stories #DomesticWorkers #abuse #ShameOnYou #beirutblast #sendthemhome #abolishkafala

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Domestic workers hired by Lebanese families often face abuse and inhumane work conditions as a result. The situation came to a head with the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw many families abandon domestic workers in their employment, effectively terminating their legal residency and often without paying their wages. Many are now stranded in Lebanon due to COVID-19 flight bans and/or lack of financial means to cover travel expenses.

The plight of Lebanon’s migrant workers was briefly highlighted during the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) advocacy movement, but the outrage soon died down. Now with the crisis ravaging Lebanon, these communities are more vulnerable than ever. According to news reports, many migrant workers have gone missing in the Beirut blast and authorities are saying it is difficult to identify and find them.

In Lebanon and beyond, there is much we can do to help end this humanitarian crisis.

Call for an End to the Kafala System

The Kafala system ties a migrant worker’s immigration status to their employer, according to HRW. Under this sponsorship system, “workers cannot leave or change employers without their employers’ consent, placing them at risk of exploitation and abuse. Those who leave their employers without ‘permission’ risk losing their legal residency in the country and face detention and deportation,” the organization reports.

The good news is that the issue is increasingly gaining momentum in Lebanon’s human rights community. Several human rights groups and organizations have launched initiatives to help the country’s migrant worker population and continue to do provide assistance even in the midst of this national crisis.

One of the most effective ways to help is to raise your voice in defense of Lebanon’s and using your platform to raise awareness about the issue and amplify their demands, by signing and sharing petitions and declarations.

Support Organizations and Groups Working to Help Lebanon’s Migrant Workers


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General Security Releases 35 Refugees from Prolonged Administrative Detention — on the Eve of the UN’s Adoption of the Global Compact on Migration Between November 23 and December 7, Lebanese General Security granted a temporary release to 35 detained refugees and asylum seekers, from Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen. 31 are refugees recognized by the UNHCR and 4 are asylum seekers waiting for the UNHCR to assess their claims. According to their reports, 33 received permits for a 1-week release, which can be renewed at General Security. The refugees had been held in administrative detention for months – between 1.5 months and two years – for lacking residency papers, not for criminal charges. Full statement in both Arabic and English in bio.

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Following and supporting the work of human rights and relief organizations is an important step to show solidarity with all Lebanese people, but it is also paramount to remember that this crisis will disproportionately affect vulnerable communities such as the country’s migrant workers.

Organizations like the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), founded by Lebanese human rights activists and migrant community leaders, work to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis facing the country’s migrant workers in all sectors of the economy. In addition to providing reliable data, the organization also runs three Migrant Community Centers (MCC) across Lebanon.

“MCCs are free and safe spaces tailored to migrant workers and evolving according to their needs, where they can meet, learn new skills, work together, and access information, resources and assistance. Since their creation, they have been offering free classes and other educational, social, and capacity-building activities, such as language classes, computer classes, health awareness sessions, rights education, advocacy training, cultural exchange events, social gatherings, and various holiday celebrations. The MCCs also serve as a hub where initiatives are launched, a space to have celebrations and get-togethers, and a casual space for migrant workers to spend time with each other. MCC’s operations are run by general coordinators and migrant community leaders, in collaboration with members of ARM,” a statement by the organization reads.

Taking a more radical approach is This Is Lebanon 961, a group working to evacuate migrant workers abandoned by their employees and raise awareness about the exploitative and slave labour-like work conditions faced by foreign domestic workers in Lebanon under the Kafala system. The group also outs Lebanese employers who abuse their migrant employees.

Similarly, the Egna Legna Besidet organization, founded by a group of Ethiopian activists, is working to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis and the policy solutions that can solve it, as well as provide assistance and relief to workers stranded in Lebanon.

Promote Racial Equality in the Arab World

It is impossible to abolish the kafala system without addressing its racist and xenophobic roots. Conversations about race seemed to trickle down into mainstream culture across the Arab world and North Africa during the BLM protests that swept the US earlier this year, but these conversations soon died down.  These problematic attitudes transcend boundaries in Arabic-speaking countries because they are informed by a culture we all share and have manifested themselves in different forms across the Middle East and North Africa.

One of the most effective ways to end racism is visibility. It is important to not only platform and amplify Black voices, but also to understand the issues that impact Afro-Arabs and North Africans. It is only by understanding racism from the perspective of those subjected to it everyday that we can learn to recognize it and call it out.

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