A migrant domestic worker in Beirut, Lebanon, March 15, 2010.  

© 2010 Reuters

(Beirut) – Lebanon’s general prosecutor should ensure an adequate investigation into allegations that a migrant domestic worker suffered months of abuse before jumping from a balcony and injuring herself, Human Rights Watch said today. The investigation should ensure that the worker, Lensa Lelisa, an Ethiopian national, can speak to investigators privately and take all feasible measures to assure her physical safety and protect her from any possible retaliation.

In a video filmed on March 11, 2018, and posted to social media on March 26 by the organization This Is Lebanon, Lelisa detailed specific allegations of consistent abuse. She said she feared she would be harmed for speaking out. Two women who visited Lelisa at the hospital each told Human Rights Watch that Lelisa said she had been beaten during her employment. Lelisa has since returned to the home, and recanted, saying she fell off the balcony and made up the story because she wanted to leave Lebanon.

“Lelisa is back in the house after first alleging serious abuse, and then saying that she wanted to return to Ethiopia,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the risk of coercion, the investigation should ensure that Lelisa can give an accurate account of what happened to her, in a safe location away from her workplace, without fear of retaliation.”

The Internal Security Forces told Human Rights Watch that they had completed an investigation after speaking with Lelisa, another migrant domestic worker in the house, the employers, two forensic doctors, and the Ethiopian Embassy, and sent their report to the prosecutor’s office. However, the Internal Security Forces said they had not provided Lelisa with any guarantee of safety or protection to ensure that she was able to speak freely. “It’s the job of the embassy to provide reassurances or guarantees,” an official said.

Human Rights Watch has found that Lebanon’s judiciary fails to hold employers accountable for abuses and that security agencies often did not adequately investigate claims of violence or abuse.

Two Ethiopian women who visited Lelisa at the hospital told Human Rights Watch that Lelisa said she did not tell investigators the truth, because of her fear of retaliation.

An Ethiopian embassy official told Human Rights Watch it had investigated the case and concluded Lelisa fell out of the apartment while cleaning and that the abuse allegations were not true. Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security, the agency in charge of foreigners’ entry and residency in Lebanon, told Human Rights Watch that it too had opened an investigation. It is up to the prosecutor to decide whether to continue the investigation or file charges.

“We are deeply concerned that even though Lelisa said she feared retaliation and has reported death threats, investigators said they did not provide safety guarantees when they interviewed her,” Fakih said. “Ensuring victim protection is essential for determining what happened in Lelisa’s case, and to reassure other domestic workers afraid of retaliation if they report abuse.”

In a second video, released on March 31, apparently filmed in her workplace, Lelisa said, “Nobody hurt me, nobody kicked me.” She again recanted her allegations on a local television show on April 2, in the presence of one of her employers.

The estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are excluded from labor law protections. Lebanon has become an outlier on this issue as most of the major countries of destination for migrant domestic workers in the Middle East have instituted labor protections. The kafala sponsorship system subjects migrant domestic workers to restrictive rules under which they cannot leave or change jobs without their employer-sponsor’s consent, giving employers a large degree of control over workers’ lives and placing the workers at risk of exploitation and abuse.

Human Rights Watch and Lebanese human rights organizations routinely document credible reports of abuses against migrant domestic workers, including non-payment of wages, forced confinement, refusal to provide time off, and verbal and physical abuse. In 2008, Human Rights Watch found that migrant domestic workers were dying at a rate of one per week, with suicide and attempted escapes the leading causes of death. Lebanese authorities are responsible for protecting everyone in the country from serious crimes, including violence and unlawful detention, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has called on candidates for Lebanon’s May parliamentary elections to commit to extending labor law protections to domestic workers, introducing additional protections to monitor working conditions and investigate abuses, and reforming the kafala system so that workers' visas are no longer tied to individual sponsors and they can terminate employment without the consent of sponsors.

“The lack of protections for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon leaves the door open to abuse,” Fakih said. “Security agencies investigating this case should take into account Lelisa’s stated fear of retaliation.”