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(Beirut) - The high death toll of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, from unnatural causes, shows the urgent need to improve their working conditions, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the official steering committee tasked with improving the situation of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon to investigate the root causes of these deaths and develop a concrete national strategy to reduce them.

Since January 2007, at least 95 migrant domestic workers have died in Lebanon. Of these 95 deaths, 40 are classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicide, while 24 others were caused by workers falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape their employers. By contrast, only 14 domestic workers died because of diseases or health issues. (Basic details of cases compiled by Human Rights Watch).

“Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week,” said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “All those involved – from the Lebanese authorities, to the workers’ embassies, to the employment agencies, to the employers – need to ask themselves what is driving these women to kill themselves or risk their lives trying to escape from high buildings.”

Interviews with embassy officials and friends of domestic workers who committed suicide suggest that forced confinement, excessive work demands, employer abuse, and financial pressures are key factors pushing these women to kill themselves or risk their lives. An official at the Philippines embassy told Human Rights Watch about one Filipina worker whose employers accused her of stealing a piece of jewelry. The employers beat her and locked her inside the house, he said. She ended up committing suicide.

Other suicide cases point to financial pressures faced by these workers who are not entitled to the minimum wage in Lebanon. Sarada Phuyal, a Nepalese national, hung herself on March 17, 2008. Human Rights Watch interviewed another Nepalese who worked in the same household: “Sarada was depressed because she had a lot of pressure from her husband to send money. Her husband was very sick. The money she was sending was all spent on medical costs. She was very upset about this because she wanted the money for her children to go to school.”

“These suicides are linked to the isolation and the difficult working conditions these workers face in Lebanon,” Houry said. “While the Lebanese authorities cannot guarantee these women happiness, they should guarantee them the right to move freely, to work in decent conditions, to communicate with their friends and families, and to earn a living wage.”

A 2006 survey of 600 domestic workers in Lebanon conducted by Dr. Ray Jureidini, of the American University in Cairo, found 31 percent of the women saying that their employers did not allow them to leave the home.

Many domestic workers who find themselves locked up attempt to escape through balconies or windows. Since January 2007, Human Rights Watch has compiled 24 cases of domestic workers who died as a result of falling from a high-story building. In eight additional cases, the worker injured herself but survived the fall.

“Many domestic workers are literally being driven to jump from balconies to escape their forced confinement,” Houry said.

While police reports usually classify cases where domestic workers fall from balconies as suicide, this classification is highly suspect. Human Rights Watch interviewed two domestic workers who had fallen from balconies but survived the fall. In both cases, they stated that they were trying to flee employers who either had mistreated them or locked them in. Kamala Nagari, a Nepalese national who injured herself on February 20, 2008 while trying to escape, told Human Rights Watch from her hospital bed:

“I was locked in for two days, and they [the employers] did not give me food and water. Then after two days, I wanted to run away. The apartment was on the fifth floor. I tried to go down using cable wires running along the wall of building. The cable broke, and I do not remember what happened afterwards.”

Officials working at the migrants’ embassies echoed this finding: “Most deaths resulting from a building fall are failed attempts to escape,” a labor attaché told Human Rights Watch. A former ambassador put it more bluntly: “Don’t call this an embassy. We have become a funeral parlor. People die. Natural deaths, accidents, suicide. When they try to run away, accidents happen.”

Lebanese police generally investigate death cases but interviews with lawyers representing domestic workers and officials working at the migrants’ embassies as well as a review of investigators’ notes in three separate police investigations reveal many flaws. First, the police do not always investigate whether the employer mistreated the employee, and when they do, they limit themselves to general questions and accept the employer’s testimony without cross-checking their statements with information from neighbors or the family of the domestic worker. Second, in cases where the domestic worker survives a fall, police often interview her without the presence of a translator and generally ignore the motives that led her to escape.

“When employers lock someone up inside a home, they are committing a crime and the police should treat it as such,” Houry said.

Human Rights Watch urged the official steering committee tasked with improving the status of domestic workers, which includes members of various relevant ministries, the police force and certain international organizations and NGOs, to begin tracking cases of such deaths and injuries, to ensure that the police properly investigate them, and to develop a concrete strategy to reduce the deaths of domestic workers. This strategy should include combating the practice of forced confinement and improving working conditions and labor law protections.

Human Rights Watch also urged governments of migrants’ countries to increase the services at their embassies and diplomatic missions in Lebanon by providing counseling and shelter for workers in distress.

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