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Hearing Regarding Alem Dechasa’s Suicide Postponed

On February 16, 2013

A Lebanese court has postponed the hearing against Ali Mahfouz, the man captured abusing Alem Dechasa Desisa on video last year. The video was recorded in front of the Ethiopian consulate and depicted two men violently dragging Dechasa, a domestic worker, into their vehicle. Dechasa was instituted shortly after the incident and committed suicide less than two weeks later.

Mahfouz, whose brother owns Dechasa’s former employment agency, attempted to justify his actions by claiming that Dechasa suffered from depression, and that she had attempted suicide in the past. Despite noting that Dechasa had not been paid since arriving in Lebanon one month prior, Mahfouz refused to acknowledge any link between her employment conditions and her emotional state.

The hearing will now take place on March 18th. Joyce Geha, an attorney from the Carita’s Migrants Center who is representing Dechasa’s family, hopes the case will establish precedent. Punishing Mahfouz, and recognizing the severe impact of his behavior, would signify the court's condemnation of dehumanizing attitudes towards migrant workers. Such a ruling would comprise an important step in combatting aggression towards migrant workers by confirming their legal equality. This info-graphic based on a 2011 HRW survey illustrates the need for Lebanese authorities to confront and penalize all forms of harassment and abuse towards domestic workers.

In a statement to the Daily Start Lebanon, Mahfouz also cited the complicity of Ethiopian consul general, Asaminew Debelie Bonssa. Bonssa reportedly refused to meet with Dechasa when Mahfouz alleged her mental illness and attempted to procure her repatriation. Bonssa requested Dechasa to be hospitalized and later “expressed regret that he trusted Mahfouz.”

While Mahfouz’ attempt to deflect accountability is untenable, the Ethiopian government must also be held liable for its neglect. In a 2010 interview with Ethiopian Suicides, Ethiopia pledged to improve protective mechanisms for migrant workers. Bonssa acknowledged the particular precariousness of undocumented migrants, estimated to account for nearly 50% of Ethiopian workers in Lebanon. Yet the consulate continues to operate without the resources to support distressed workers; according to one Ethiopian worker, the consulate is not even equipped with a room to house abused or absconded, so they are forced to sleep under nearby cars and endure the harassment of male passerby's. That such a startling display of public abuse occurred at the site of the consulate epitomizes the failure of the Ethiopian government to seriously address the chronic plight of its expatriates. Given the absence of significant supportive mechanisms from Ethiopian authorities, it is unsurprising that over 150 Ethiopian workers died in 2011.

Lebanon should also pursue Dechasa’s former employment agency, which still retains its license despite subjecting Dechasa to dangerous conditions. The terms of employment licenses in Lebanon requires, through a number of stipulations, that offices ensure the well-being of their employees. But according to the Daily Star Lebanon, employment agency inspectors have yet to be trained. ILO officials expect to prepare inspectors for systematic regulations by May.

Last month, documentarist Vanessa Bowles screened Alem & Asrat, a film profiling the lives Dechasa and another ill-fated Ethiopian domestic worker. Bowles met the family of both Alem and Asrat in Ethiopia, as well as a group of young activists called ‘Good Ethiopians’ who have fundraised to support Dechasa’s family. Through these personal accounts, Alem & Asrat explores the socio-legal frameworks in both Lebanon and Ethiopa that perpetuate the plight of migrant domestic workers. More information on the film can be found here.