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Hardships for Lebanon’s Migrant Domestic Workers Rise

Port Explosion Led to Increased Homelessness of Workers Abandoned by Employers

An Ethiopian domestic worker waits in front of the Ethiopian consulate after she and others were abandoned by their Lebanese employers, in Hazmieh, east of Beirut, Lebanon, June 4, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

More than a month since the devastating port explosion in Beirut, the situation for many of the estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon has gone from dire to catastrophic.

The explosion happened amidst an economic crisis that worsened from late 2019 onwards, during which hundreds of migrant domestic workers were abandoned by their employers. The Lebanese government did little to hold these employers accountable or protect the rights of the workers.

As domestic workers have little to no legal protections in Lebanon, they began calling on their embassies to send them home. But high airfare costs, together with little embassy support and sometimes even allegations of physical violence by some embassy officials, left many migrant workers in limbo. Before the explosion, many abandoned workers were already living on the streets or in temporary shelters and relying on local organizations to get by.

Then came the blast. Workers lost passports, money, and belongings in the blast, and the explosion destroyed workers’ shared accommodations and temporary shelters, making dozens homeless in an instant. Additionally, many reported facing discrimination in receiving aid, including access to adequate shelter. Some slept in the streets.

Migrant workers from Kenya, Gambia, and Ethiopia intensified their calls for repatriation, which were amplified by local organizations. They say they were met with silence from their governments and Lebanese authorities. A local nongovernmental organization paid for return flights for 38 Gambian migrant workers. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) assisted 13 Nigerian workers to repatriate between May and August. But this does not begin to meet the need.

On September 4, the caretaker Minister of Labor, Lamia Yammine Douaihy, announced a new labor contract for migrant domestic workers. While this contract is an important step, it does not abolish the abusive kafala (visa sponsorship) system that ties workers’ legal status to their employers and which stranded many migrants in Lebanon in the first place. It is not yet clear how the new contract will be rolled out or enforced.

The Labor Minister should show she is serious about migrant domestic workers’ rights by aiding workers abandoned by their employers. Lebanese authorities should ensure migrant workers have food and shelter, and hold abusive employers to account. Additionally, the Lebanese government, countries of origin, and international humanitarian agencies should ensure that those workers who want to return home can do so.

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