Deportation of activist signals change for Lebanon's migrant workers

Deportation of activist signals change for Lebanon's migrant workers
9 min read
20 December, 2016
In-depth: Approximately 250,000 women live in Lebanon as migrant domestic workers. But activists in migrant communities are uniting against abuses under the 'kafala' system, writes Clare Maxwell.
A Sri Lankan house maid cooks in a shelter, run by Caritas Lebanon [AFP]

A group of activists gathered earlier this month outside the General Security Detention Center in Sin el-Fil, Lebanon, in observance of the United Nations International Human Rights Day.

Beyond the general cause of human rights, the protesters were demanding the release of Sujana Rana and Rose Limbu, two Nepalese domestic workers and labour activists who had been arrested a week earlier.

The crowd kept up chants of "Free Rosie, Free Sujana," and "Hurriyeh" (Freedom, in Arabic) for half an hour until they suddenly stopped to listen: Voices from inside the prison were shouting the slogans back.

Many of those inside the Sin el-Fil prison - built specifically to house immigrants - are themselves migrant labourers. They too were chanting for the two women who have become champions of the community.

The two are active opponents of Lebanon's kafala system, a method of bringing East Asian and African domestic workers into the country that has been called modern-day slavery.

Later that night, activists gathered again, this time at Rafic Hariri International Airport to wave Rana off as she was deported to Nepal after living more than a decade in Beirut.

Between her arrest on December 1 and her deportation on December 10 she was not allowed a trial, or the right to see her lawyer. The charges against her were never announced.

Between her arrest on December 1 and her deportation on December 10 she was not allowed a trial, or the right to see her lawyer.

Rana says that the accusation she faced from Lebanese police, that she was helping other domestic workers violate the terms of their contracts, was false. Speaking from Nepal, she says that she and Limbu faced the same charges, and that they were both treated brutally.

"They didn't let me call anyone, even my employer, they put black mask on our eye; we couldn't see anything. They keep us like big criminals."

Limbu, who remains in the Sin el-Fil detention center was not available for comment, although she has not been given a trial either, or allowed communication with a lawyer. Both women are founding members of the Domestic Workers Union in Lebanon and are active with a number of organisations advocating for Nepalese immigrants' rights and better treatment of migrant workers.

Rana, as well as the activists she works with, believe that the two women were accused on trumped-up charges as revenge for opposing the brutality of the kafala system and the recruitment agencies that bring workers to the country.

For activists, the past few weeks have been challenging but not without a silver lining. Farah Salka, the Director of the Anti-Racism Movement, believes that the arrest of well-known activists will be a rallying point for renewed organising.

"The outrage at what they have done with those two activists so far is huge. And won't fade away before remedy," she said.

The charge of helping a worker break their contract may seem minor, but in Lebanon it is significant. Currently, approximately 250,000 women live in Lebanon as migrant domestic workers.

Each one's plane fare, housing, working conditions, income, and right to remain in the country entirely depend on the sponsorship of a Lebanese employer; workers in this system are excluded from any rights under Lebanese labour law.

Breaking the terms of a contract is often grounds for deportation, while cases like that of Sujana Rana, in which a worker is deported without a complaint from her employer, are very rare.

Because employers have near-total control, abuse under the system is rampant

Because employers have near-total control, abuse under the system is rampant. Employees often report being kept inside the house and made to work up to 20 hours a day. In more severe instances, workers have been raped or publicly beaten. In 2008, there was approximately one domestic worker suicide a week.

Both Rana and Limbu migrated to Lebanon under these conditions, which pushed both to volunteer as advocates in any free time they could manage.

In their advocacy work, Rana and Limbu met women who suffered immensely under their employers and recruitment agents. Rana says in these circumstances she and Limbu encouraged women to seek out community support groups, or NGOs that offered employer/worker mediation.

She denies ever encouraging another worker to run away from their employment, or break their contract. Leena Ksaifi, the director of the Equip program which works for better relations between immigrant workers and Lebanese employers, says Limbu was a volunteer in the program and embraced its policy of pushing workers to improve relationships, rather than run away.

"When a worker leaves her sponsor, she is very likely to be arrested, or deported," said Ksaifi. "It makes her much more vulnerable, so we help them seek other options."

Ksaifi also expressed disgust at the treatment of Limbu and Rana at the hands of the General Security. "Rose was trapped in modern day slavery for years, but she chose to stay and give back to the Lebanese community. Is this how she should be treated?"

Colleagues described Rana and Limbu as pragmatic activists who worked within the limits of the law and whose relationships with their employers were good. Yet eventually their work began to attract negative attention, particularly from kafala recruiters.

According to the Ministry of Labour, approximately 600 agencies in Lebanon arrange kafala contracts

According to the Ministry of Labour, approximately 600 agencies in Lebanon arrange kafala contracts. While some organisations maintain a high degree of professionalism, others have been accused of human trafficking.

Migrant workers' rights activists, including Limbu and Rana, say they have received many threats from recruiters, who felt threatened as NGOs began to lodge complaints against them or intervene in cases of abuse.

Rana says that during recent months, the name of one kafala recruiter, George Abu Zeid, began to pop up more regularly. Several of the women he brought to Lebanon ended up in devastating conditions.

Rana reports that his name was mentioned repeatedly during her questioning by the General Security forces. Prior to her arrest, he had sent her several threatening messages, telling her that he would try and sabotage her relationships with the NGOs she worked with.

Rana says that some of the women she was accused of helping to escape their contracts were recruited by Abu Zeid and his colleagues. All of them were in desperate situations. One had been denied food by her employer, another she found severely intoxicated in the street. Rana says she helped the women contact community support groups.

While one of the women did run away from her employment, and eventually made the decision to return to Nepal of her own accord, Rana maintains that she had not encouraged the woman to leave her employer. Rather, the fugitive worker contacted her two months after she ran away, asking for help.

Rana helped her to connect with social workers at Kafa, the anti-domestic violence organisation. Nothing more. Yet Rana says during her interrogation in Sin el-Fil, Lebanese security officers directly questioned her as to why she had asked NGOs to intervene in these cases, instead of leaving the recruiters to deal with the women themselves.

Representatives from all the organisations that Rana and Limbu have worked with - Equip, the Domestic Workers Union in Lebanon, Kafa, and the Anti-Racism Movement - stress they seek to improve relationships between workers and their kafala employers and work within the law for policy changes that will ensure the rights of migrant workers.

Most of these organisations were founded, or started their domestic worker programs, within the past five to eight years. The Domestic Workers union is less than two years old. To varying degrees, all of the organisations combine the skills of formally educated Lebanese social workers and activists and the knowledge of leaders from different migrant communities who can build coalitions among workers.

Beyond just providing support, the migrant workers’ rights movement in Lebanon has moved to focus both on grassroots action and formal lobbying.

The emerging combination of policy advocates and activists that work within migrant communities is a mounting threat to kafala employers and recruiters who previously could abuse workers with total impunity, and the tacit approval of the government.

'The General Security is pretty unhappy at the loud voices these two women have had.' - Farah Salka, Director of Anti-Racism Movement

"The General Security have 'let things go' for quite a while now, always instilling fear and a potential threat to the stay of all active Migrant Domestic Worker's services, but this is the first time the potential threat is translated into actual tangible threat and harm, forced stopping of work, detention and deportation. General Security is pretty unhappy at the loud voices these two women have had." said Salka.

Activists in Lebanon are using the arrest of Limbu and Rana to raise awareness for their movement, and push for full recognition of migrant workers' rights.

Over twenty organisations, including Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation have condemned the actions of the Lebanese government for targeting the pair. Their statement notes that,

"The case of Sujana and Rose today proves yet again the legal vulnerability of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon as their fate is always fully controlled by the authorities and employers. The latest action by the General Security raises the suspicions on the possibility of the existence of discriminatory measures against the defenders of human rights and the right to freedom of association guaranteed in the Preamble of the Lebanese Constitution."

The efforts of the organisation have not gone unnoticed. On Friday, December 16th, the coalition of organisations supporting Rana and Limbu announced that they had successfully lobbied the Lebanese General Security for an injunction on the deportation of Limbu for two weeks. Whether she will be allowed legal counsel is still unclear.   

Farah Abdullah, a colleague of Limbu and Rana from the Domestic Workers' Union in Lebanon, says that the unprecedented arrest frightens other migrant workers, but they refuse to stop organising.

"What is happening is not clear, it's a mess for the members. Yet they are still determined to gather and to defend their right to work freely. They came to Lebanon to work and to live their lives. We don't know what reason there is to take this away from them. No one should have that right."

The detained workers inside the Sin el-Fil detention center who added their voices to protest Sujana Rana's deportation would certainly agree.

Clare Maxwell is a journalist and media activist living in Beirut, Lebanon. Her work has appeared in Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.