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Caritas Migrants Center - Helping migrants in Lebanon

On July 21, 2008

There is hope for female migrant workers in Lebanon:

Why maids are a priority for Lebanese NGOs:

As a middle-income country populated by enterprising people, Lebanon is bursting with NGOs working on every issue imaginable, from the reconstruction of Nahr al Bared refugee camp to the promotion of eco-tourism in its beautiful green hills.

But there is one area of human suffering that gets a relatively small slice of the aid pie - the plight of domestic migrant workers - an estimated 200,000 in a population of 4 million, many of them beaten or abused and imprisoned if they try to run.

Recruited via agencies from poorer countries such as Ethiopia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and tied to their employers by contract, the maids of Lebanon are vulnerable to abuse. Reports of beatings and wages not paid are widespread, with some employers confiscating maids' passports and confining them to the home.

Migrant workers who run away are deemed illegal and, if caught by the authorities, detained until money can be found to deport them. Lebanon's prisons are full of runaway maids, often languishing for months.

Catholic relief agency Caritas Lebanon is the only organisation which works directly with migrant workers.

Its lone operator status doubtless owes something to the sensitivity of a subject which risks damaging the country's image and the interests of the many Lebanese whose lifestyle depends on the services of a cheap, live-in maid.

It's also, if I'm honest, a journalistic subject that's been in my own interests to avoid as - enjoying Lebanese hospitality at the houses of friends and contacts - I've often sat at a table waited on by a silent presence who comes when called and eats alone in the kitchen.

But on a visit to Lebanon following its latest crisis, the maid stories were begging to be told.

One friend - an aid worker for Palestinian refugees in her day job - was busy campaigning for the release of a new detainee, a Sri Lankan friend of her own maid's, who had fled her employer's beatings. Now held in underground prison Adlieh and surviving on bits of bread and cucumber, her visitors said she was sinking fast.

Someone else introduced me to an illegal maid who's been in hiding since fleeing a "madam" who withheld food. She's clearly still traumatised by her experience. "Nobody help suffering! Nobody see!" she tells me between fits of crying.

People who negotiate with the authorities, employers and agencies unofficially on the migrants' behalf tell me tales of sexual abuse and maids jumping from balconies in despair.

According to Rania Hokayem, project manager at the Caritas Migrants Center, which runs a safe house for runaways, every detainee is monitored and her case accelerated so she spends the minimum time in prison. All, in addition to the food provided in prison, get three hot meals a week.

Meanwhile, reported allegations of abuse in the home are investigated. "We can say maybe 60 percent of cases have been successful," she says. "Some are resolved by negotiation."

She is hopeful that a steering committee of NGOs and government ministries to examine the issue will lead to some real change.

"I believe in Lebanon we have come a long way compared to other countries. Lebanon is better than Saudi Arabia," she said. "The government is making a huge effort to regularise the situation. There has been huge progress in this field."

Seta Hadeshian, director of the Unit on Life and Service at the Middle East Council of Churches, who has been working with prison officers, is also optimistic. "They are very open to change," she said. "They feel ashamed about the situation that exists within the detention centres."

But the perspective from the ground, from the maids and those working unofficially to help them, is very different. They say that little is being done to curb the abuse and that the suffering of maids in Lebanese homes and jails goes on.

"I've realised that if the employers are in a high position even Caritas cannot intervene," said one advocate who cannot be named, citing judges and army high-ups as those considered off-limits.

Perhaps the disjunction between the two views points to a dilemma shared by aid workers and activists working in difficult situations across the world - how to tread the delicate line between telling the authorities what they need to hear and working co-operatively with them to bring about change.

And, with the focus back on domestic affairs after the election of a new president, NGOs are tackling the issue with renewed vigour. Human Rights Watch, which launched a new campaign in April, is due to publish a report in the autumn. Having consulted with NGOs in the Middle East and countries where migrants come from, British aid agency Christian Aid found it to be an issue of choice for funding and support.

The plight of the Middle East's migrant workers - and the dilemmas it brings - may prove to be an issue whose time has come.