Abandoned and forgotten, the Beirut explosion leaves Lebanon's migrant workers more vulnerable than ever

Abandoned and forgotten, the Beirut explosion leaves Lebanon's migrant workers more vulnerable than ever
8 min read
Many of those killed by the Beirut explosion were migrant workers. Already a vulnerable group in Lebanon, their plight is now likely to get even worse.
Migrant workers living in Lebanon suffer routine abuses. [Getty]
The explosion which caused a 10-kilometre radius of destruction in Beirut did not discriminate between the origins of the more than 200 lives taken prematurely.

As the rescue teams dug up bodies from the rubble, death tolls accounted for French, Ethiopian, German, Filipino, Dutch, Italian, Bangladeshi, Australian and Syrian victims - emblematic of Beirut, a city synonymous with cosmopolitanism.

Many of those killed were also migrant labourers, including at least four Bangladeshis, four Filipinos, one Ethiopian national, and at least 43 Syrians, likely refugees. Many of the victims are thought to have been working at the port or in nearby neighbourhoods at the time of the explosion.

Activist groups say some of these workers are not being included in the official missing persons tally, according to reports by The Daily Star

According to rights groups on the ground, the struggle to find them through the chaos and identify their bodies amongst the victims was made harder by the fact that the over 250,000 foreign labourers living in Lebanon are subject to the country's sponsorship system, or kafala

The kafala system has been compared to a form of modern day slavery and allows employers to confiscate the documents of their employees, making it more difficult for their presence to be monitored by the government, which has failed to identify many of the dead bodies of workers at Beirut's hospitals. 

These workers were already one of the most vulnerable groups in Lebanon. Now, their circumstances have become even more dire.

"Honestly, now, we can't cope. Even the Ethiopian embassy can't cope. There was no plan, even with corona, the economic crisis, the explosion, these were all terrible things for us. We can't bear this situation," Mekdes Ylma said, an Ethiopian domestic worker and Director of Finance at Egna Legna Besidet, a domestic workers group in Lebanon.

"Even Egna Legna can't do any more to help domestic workers. There's no work for us, there hasn't been work for domestic workers in a very long time. We are all trying to get back to Ethiopia, all of us, we want to go home, we don't want anything else right now. There is nothing here for us."

After more than 12 and a half years in Lebanon working as a domestic worker, Mekdes - who goes by Magi - says she feels no one is looking out for her, or her community. 

"Nobody is answering us. The Lebanese state does nothing to help us. Organisations don't help us. The Ethiopian ambassador in Beirut has done nothing to help us, for two months, nothing. Even before, they didn't help us."

The economic crisis, the explosion, these were all terrible things for us. We can't bear this situation

As they desperately attempt to go home, Magi says many domestic workers have lost their documents, money, and valuables in the blast, meaning they remain helplessly stuck in a country on the brink of collapse.

A worrying 75 percent of Lebanese were already in need of aid before the deadly explosion, and one third of citizens had lost their jobs, with one million people living below the poverty line. The local currency has also lost 80 percent of its value, amid a severe dollar shortage. 

The explosion in Beirut has exacerbated the crisis, having caused up to $15 billion in damages to the city and leaving 300,000 residents homeless.

But even before the blast, scores of domestic workers were stranded in Lebanon, homeless, unemployed, and unable to feed their children, Magi said.

Following the double whammy of economic and public health crises, their employers - either unable or unwilling to pay their wages - simply left them outside their embassies. Dozens of Ethiopian women were forced to sleep on the pavement in front of the consulate in Beirut, which said it was unable to provide help. For them, the explosion feels like another devastating obstacle in their bid to return home.

This lack of support is a symptom of a system in Lebanon which already placed countless challenges in the way of foreign workers, with little protections offered to them by the state.

"You're talking about communities that face arbitrary detention, harassment, denial of documentation, inadequate housing, and more. They have to stay below the radar in order to avoid deportation. Add onto all of this the fallout of the explosion, and I can't imagine how badly they will be impacted," said Nadia Hardman, Refugee and Migrant Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Hardman says that Magi and other domestic workers are not the only ones thinking about reluctantly leaving Lebanon. 

"In interviews I carried out with refugees, they were already facing evictions, bartering whatever they had to pay rent. I spoke to a family who had two disabled children and they were forced to sell their wheelchairs in order to pay for rent," said Hardman.

Hardman says this myriad of added challenges risks pushing refugees to flee, even back to their war-torn countries of origin.

"This might push Syrian refugees to think about going home. When I speak to them they state quite clearly they do not want to go back to Syria because it is not safe there," said Hardman.

"But right now, Lebanon is not a place where they can see themselves protected. When it comes to refugees, this is the most important thing: What kind of protection can Lebanon afford to give?"

You're talking about communities that face arbitrary detention, harassment, denial of documentation, inadequate housing, and more

The devastation and deaths caused by the blast are also likely to cause untold trauma amongst Beirut's residents, who witnessed the destruction of their homes. The mental health of migrant workers was already deteriorating during the lockdown in Lebanon, according to Doctors Without Borders, and now it is likely to get worse.

"Migrant workers are often subjected to long working hours, low wages, and restrictions on their movements and on their communication with the outside world, poor living conditions and a lack of privacy," the international rights group wrote in a report released in July. 

"I was in shock. I was frozen, I couldn't run, I couldn't shout, I couldn't scream," Tsigreda Birhanu, a domestic worker and activist from Ethiopia, told the BBC

"Usually, if a domestic worker gets sick, if she goes to hospital, the first thing that they ask is for work permit… or sponsor. If you don't have money nobody talks to you. But last night what I saw surprised me because nobody asked… they didn't ask names… [they just] gave you the medical assistance," she said, highlighting the difficulties foreign workers often face accessing healthcare facilities. 

"Hospitals are dangerous for them, as they could ask for documentation, so they're scared. Many Syrian babies are not even registered and don't have certificates which means they risk being stateless," Hardman explains, arguing that this lack of documentation could have deterred refugees and undocumented migrants from seeking medical assistance after the blast. 

Discrimination and vilification hinder their ability to feel safe while seeking assistance since a campaign by the country's Ministry of Labour still places harsh regulations on the rights of foreign labourers, especially refugees, and often uses them as scapegoats for the woes of its people. 

"A stark 78 percent of refugees do not have legal residency, even if they have the right to obtain it. Lebanon makes it extremely difficult to obtain residency, you can be stopped at a checkpoint and deported without the right to due process in the worst scenario. So of course refugees stay under the radar," Hardman told The New Arab.  

This was heightened during the outbreak of Covid-19, when Lebanon's authorities doubled down on refugees, imposing discriminatory provisions for them to get tested which nationals were not subject to. 

This discrimination spurs on racism throughout Lebanon against foreign migrants - common throughout the Middle East - and adds to the hostile environment Magi's community faces everyday.

Foreign domestic workers across the Arab world are now being forced to go home. "Not because of the economic crisis but because of racism," said Magi. "You can't educate your children. We need education, we need to live like normal people. All domestic workers want their children to go to school. When they go to school, there is racism. There are schools that won't let us in because we're black."

Non-governmental humanitarian bodies have stepped in to aid those most vulnerable, like Doctors Without Borders, who Magi says have been helping the migrant community - with the government largely absent from efficient relief efforts.

Consequently, those who survived the deadly explosion have taken matters into their own hands, mobilising to rebuild their beloved Beirut, across age groups, religions, and nationalities.

This solidarity emerged when a video went viral online, showing what was assumed to be a domestic worker saving a child from the implosion of a balcony, prompting many to praise her actions and call for better treatment of migrant workers in Lebanon, and the rest of the Middle East.

"We need to see this as a crisis for all. The focus should be on the eclectic mix that makes up Beirut," added Hardman, exhausted from two days of cleaning-up her destroyed neighbourhood. 

"The hidden workers are foreign more often than not. Those doing these unskilled jobs, will suffer the brunt of this explosion. It should be an opportunity to uncover the conditions they are working in without the protection they deserve."

Gaia Caramazza and Florence Dixon are staff journalists at The New Arab. 

Follow them on Twitter @GaiaCaramazza @flo_dix.