Lebanon marked International Human Rights Day on Saturday by deporting Sujana Rana, a Nepalese migrant domestic worker involved in the struggle for the rights of migrant domestic workers.

Sujana Rana being deported to Nepal from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. 

Her arrest and deportation suggests authorities targeted Rana for her activism, a shortsighted move that will undermine the fight for equal rights in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s general security agency detained Rana at her employer’s home on November 30, 2016, did not allow her to call a lawyer, and questioned her about her involvement in activism for the rights of migrant domestic workers, according to local organizations. Lebanese authorities later arrested a second Nepalese migrant domestic worker, Roja Limbu, on December 5. She remains in detention and no reason has been given for either woman’s arrest. Both are active members of the domestic workers’ union in Lebanon and have legal status and work authorization. According to civil society organizations, lawyers have been unable to meet with Limbu in detention and have expressed concern that she too will be deported.

Twenty-one organizations, including Human Rights Watch, condemned the arrests, calling for their immediate release and to allow them to appeal their deportation.

There are an estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. But they are excluded from labor law protections, and a kafala sponsorship system subjects them to restrictive immigration rules, placing them at risk of exploitation and abuse. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon commonly report non-payment of wages, forced confinement, employers’ refusal to provide time off, and verbal and physical abuse. In 2010, Human Rights Watch found that Lebanon’s judiciary failed to hold employers accountable for these abuses. In 2008, we also found that migrant domestic workers were dying at a rate of one per week, with suicide and attempted escapes the leading causes of death.

On December 29, 2014, six Lebanese workers submitted a request to the Labor Ministry to form a union, a step that would strengthen legal protections for vulnerable workers. But instead of recognizing the union, the labor minister denounced it as illegal. The domestic workers’ union, which both Rana and Limbu are a part of, continues to operate informally however, acting as a forum for advocacy of migrant domestic worker rights.

By cracking down on union organizers, Lebanon denies their right to freedom of association and collective bargaining under international law. Refusal to recognize the union impedes an important step that could improve working conditions, protect workers, and save lives.

Lebanon should recognize the domestic workers’ union, abolish the Kafala sponsorship system, and extend labor protections to domestic workers.

Roja Limbu fought for a better Lebanon for all domestic workers and is now sitting in jail, at risk of the same fate as Sujana Rana. The least the authorities could do is refrain from punishing her, and targeting all those organizing to protect workers’ rights.