||Migrant Workers in Lebanon
- CHAPTER TWO -
- Chapter one
- Chapter three
- Chapter four
The Problems of Migrant Workers in
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6-The state and migrant
In this section, we shall focus on the
relationship between migrant workers and the Lebanese state. The International
Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers has a long
series of provisions protecting migrant workers in their relations with the
security organs and the judicial hierarchy in states of employment. This
includes, most notably, protection against inhumane conditions of
incarceration, the right to a trial, equality before the law and the courts,
protection against illegal expulsion, and liberty of movement, particularly
when departing a country. The convention does, however, limit the activities of
migrant workers when these might threaten the security of the state of
One of the more flagrant problems affecting migrant workers is
the absence of an adequate link between legal migrant workers and the Lebanese
authorities. There is no formal bureau at Lebanon's labor ministry to deal with
migrant workers, or sub-categories of such workers. This creates an obvious,
and fundamental, problem of communication between migrants and the Lebanese
state. As one activist, Tina Naccash, remarked, the opening of such a bureau is
necessary, at the least to help migrant workers in difficulty.
potential usefulness of such a bureau can be much greater: Article 65 of the
Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers specifically
calls on the signatories to "maintain appropriate services to deal with
questions concerning international migration of workers and members of their
families." Their functions would include implementing policies on migration;
exchanging information on migrant workers with other states; providing
information to employers, workers, and their organizations on laws and
regulations relating to migrant workers; providing information and assistance
to migrant workers for a series of activities, including those affecting
formalities, arrangements for departure or arrival, remunerated activities, tax
The mere fact that no accurate information exists on the
numbers of migrant workers in Lebanon is as good a sign as any of the necessity
of a bureau of migrant affairs. The absence of such a bureau has not meant that
the labor ministry has been unconcerned with the fate of migrants. Rather, its
efforts have been haphazard. In February 1999, the Sri Lankan labor minister,
John Senevirathna, traveled to Beirut to hold talks with Lebanese officials on
the problems facing his migrant nationals. He declared that thanks to the
intervention of the labor ministry, domestics who had been stranded in Lebanon
because they could not afford the $900 demanded by the authorities for new
travel documents, were allowed to return home. The ministry's power is
relatively limited, however, as regards the fate of migrant workers,
particularly those who are detained or who face complex exit procedures. Mr.
Senevirathna did say he would ask for a bilateral agreement between Lebanon and
Sri Lanka, to incorporate "all matters of foreign employment."
Relations between migrant workers and the judiciary have also been relatively
uneasy. This, however, is not always due to discrimination, but to the
intricacies of legal procedures, which affect Lebanese and non-Lebanese alike.
As suggested above in the case of the Filipino domestic worker, Louisa, legal
proceedings often must conform to guidelines that may be difficult for a
migrant worker to fulfill. Migrant workers are generally unfamiliar with
Lebanese law, which means that when it comes time to resort to the courts they
rarely know what to do, or even what their rights are.
There is also the
problem of cost. Everything from asking for a medical report in case of
physical abuse to hiring a lawyer can be prohibitively expensive for someone
earning two or three hundred dollars a month at the most. One must also
consider a less tangible problem: indifference. If migrant workers seek
assistance, they cannot at all be certain that their Lebanese interlocutors
will respond positively to their requests or complaints.
As noted above,
an additional complicating factor is that the Lebanese legal system is in
crisis. The system suffers from a dearth of competent magistrates, backlog,
corruption, and political interference. This often means that whether one is a
migrant or not, the system as a whole fails to meet the needs of litigants or
defendants. Thus, detained migrant workers, like many others, may spend months
in detention facilities or prison simply awaiting eviction procedures or a
trial, if they have been accused of a crime. Once they are expelled
administratively or brought before a magistrate, they may not understand the
language. Nor are there any guarantees that a migrant worker will be properly
defended once a lawyer has been found.
Adding to the difficult
situation of migrants are their often deplorable conditions in detention. One
must recall that migrant workers who are in Lebanon illegally are considered
separate from criminals. The Lebanese authorities generally accept this
distinction, which is why migrants are detained in special areas reserved for
them, whether in government buildings or prisons. The conditions in these
facilities, however, are not necessarily better than those of convicted
prisoners. For example, Lebanon's main penitentiary at Roumieh is infamous for
its crowded cells, its promiscuity, and its filth. Indeed, this prompted
prisoners to riot in 1998. However, the conditions of migrant workers have
improved of late, at least in relative terms.
As noted in Chapter One, for
a migrant to be evicted from Lebanon the decision must be taken by a tribunal.
In the past, however, the General Security service, has expelled migrants
illegally by administrative writ. While awaiting such a decision, migrants have
been detained in contravention to the law, and in facilities with no legal
sanction. Nor are basic procedures of incarceration always respected: Women
prisoners are watched over by male guards. Similarly, the General Security
prison in Furn al-Shubbak has been described as "shameful" by someone who
actively helps Afro-Asian migrant workers.
The problematic relationship
between migrant workers and the judicial authorities is an extension, in many
respects, of that between migrants and the security organs, in particular the
police. While it is always best to avoid generalizations, it is probably fair
to argue that the police are unmotivated when it comes to investigating, and
punishing, wrongdoing visited upon migrant workers. Again, this attitude is
part of a wider problem in Lebanon, which affects migrants and Lebanese alike:
namely the inferior quality of many public servants, particularly after the
war, of which some members of the police force are an example. It is often
difficult even for Lebanese to persuade the police to investigate petty crimes,
and all too often violence against migrant workers appears to be interpreted by
police as part of this category.
Human rights activists have reported a
variety of violations of the law by the police. While insisting that not all
policemen or precincts were involved, one activist, Tina Naccash, told a local
newspaper that she knew of two cases of police brutality: In one, an
18-year-old Sri Lankan girl was repeatedly raped by an officer, while in
another a Sri Lankan woman was so badly beaten that she had to spend three days
Roland Tawq, a lawyer, who represented a Filipino female
migrant worker beaten by police (see below) was equally blunt, remarking: "I
can tell [a newspaper reporter] with 100-percent certainty that many people are
being beaten during investigations. These police procedures present the biggest
problems for lawyers. They beat our clients and force them to confess. But once
the accused reaches court, he or she would say something completely
Police abuse may be abetted by the judicial authorities.
Naturally, one should avoid generalizations. However, some magistrates have,
for example, extend the period of detention of migrants, while ignoring
legally-mandated deadlines, thus rendering the detention process illegal. At
the same time, there is often little incentive on the part of some magistrates
to investigate police brutality. This is partly a result of the political
situation in the country. Since the end of the war in 1990, the security
organs, including the police, the General Security service, and the various
intelligence services, have been given great latitude in the system. This
appears, partially, to be the excess backlash of a decade and a half when state
authority was virtually nonexistent. At the same time, there is strong
political influence over the judiciary. As a result, magistrates tend to avoid
clashes with the security organs, particularly over mistreatment foreigners, as
this may pose career or political problems for them.
In the following case
study, the relationship between the Lebanese judicial authorities and the
police is brought to light. The case, which was based on a false accusation,
not only exposed abuse of authority by the judiciary and police, it also
underlined the extent to which both are often willing to favor the employer
against the migrant employee, even when the evidence suggests that the employee
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7-The case of Linda Sachbibit
Linda Sachbibit is a 42-year-old Filipino
domestic worker who was falsely accused of theft, arrested, beaten by the
police, and illegally detained on order of a magistrate. Sachbibit, who was
one of two housekeepers in a household, was accused by her French employer of
having stolen a medallion. The employer called in the police, who took
Sachbibit in for interrogation. During the course of the interrogation, she was
repeatedly beaten and hung, as she put it, "like a roast chicken." At one point
she even fainted. The police tried to force her to admit to stealing the
medallion and giving it to her boyfriend. Sachbibit denied the theft and said
she did not even have a boyfriend.
Sachbibit's sister, who was also at the
police station, contacted the Philippines embassy to report what was happening.
The embassy sent someone to see Sachbibit after her beating, and subsequently
contacted Lebanon's general prosecutor. According to the law, the police were
entitled to detain Sachbibit for 24 hours, with a further 24-hour extension
allowed only by authorization of the general prosecutor, if deemed necessary.
Sachbibit was kept for four days, before an extension was approved. And only a
week after that was an arrest warrant issued. As Sachbibit's lawyer put it: "So
we're looking at eleven days where Erlinda was detained illegally."
Sachbibit was released on bail after spending a month and a half in prison. To
press charges against the police she would have had to seek out another
witness, or produce a medical report. Since the witnesses in the room were all
policemen, and there was no chance to file a medical report soon after the
beatings, such a measure was impossible. Similarly, while the Philippines
embassy notified the general prosecutor of the mistreatment, it was unwilling
to instigate a crisis with the Lebanese authorities over the incident.
There were several aspects to the case which deserve mention. First, was the
police's unjustified and unlawful brutality - indeed torture - which went
unpunished. In any country with a well-operating legal system and with proper
oversight over the police and security organs, such behavior would have
provoked a furor. In Lebanon it didn't, partly for the reasons outlined above:
the timidity of magistrates when it comes to legally pursuing members of the
police or security services; an often generalized indifference to the fate of
migrants; and, in a more abstract way, a public unwillingness to challenge
authority by exposing official wrongdoing.
The incident also revealed the
laziness of some policemen, which says a great deal about the quality of
certain categories of public servants. The police assumed, with no apparent
evidence, that Sachbibit was guilty of theft, merely on the basis of her
employer's accusation. Revealingly, at no time was any suspicion cast on the
other housekeeper, who may conceivably have stolen the medallion. The police
avoided conducting even the minimal requirements of an investigation, including
interrogating all possible suspects.
A third aspect of the incident was
the not wholly clarified performance of the general prosecutor, and Sachbibit's
illegal detention beyond the mandated deadline. The fact that the general
prosecutor received a complaint from the Philippines embassy (and passed it on
to the police), proves that there was judicial awareness of both the date and
conditions of Sachbibit's detention. And yet an extension of Sachbibit's
detention was authorized, and this three days after the 24-hour limit for
renewal. Despite the illegality of the detention, despite the intervention of a
foreign embassy, despite the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, Sachbibit
was detained a further seven days until an arrest warrant was issued. And as
final icing on the cake, Sachbibit was released without a trial date being set.
There appeared to be an implicit agreement between the Philippines embassy
and the Lebanese authorities to avoid making an issue of Sachbibit's
predicament. Even though embassy personnel had seen Sachbibit after she had
been brutalized, nothing was done to insure judicial redress, or at least
insure compensation for the woman. As noted earlier, diplomatic personnel of
countries which send migrant workers to Lebanon are at times unwilling to rock
the boat with the Lebanese authorities: this may adversely affect their
careers, or, more mundanely, jeopardize a valued source of hard currency.
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8-Migrant workers and Lebanese
This is hardly the place to draw detailed
conclusions about Lebanese attitudes towards migrant workers. That would
require more methodical techniques, such as opinion polls, which would probably
not reveal much either, since expressed attitudes towards migrants need not
necessarily determine what kind of behavior a potential employer will engage in
when a worker is under his or her orders.
It is probably fair to say that
the attitude in Lebanon towards migrant workers often reflects a perception of
their status near or at the bottom of the social ladder. Lebanon is, simply,
not a country were migrant workers are much respected. Some have chosen to see
the disdain as a sign of racism. Sister Amelia Torres, a Filipino nun who
assists domestic workers, openly declared: "Most Lebanese are racists. They say
so openly." Father Martin McDermott expressed a similar opinion in an
interview. Both may be right, though both were merely expressing a feeling
based on experience, not on an accurate study of Lebanese mores. Given that
they essentially deal with migrant workers with problems, this alleged racism
may be more pronounced in their Lebanese interlocutors than in society at
Blacks in particular appear to have a hard time of it. An informal
survey conducted with 100 people by the English-language newspaper the Daily
Star, seemed to reveal a genuine problem: 40% of respondents thought blacks
less civilized or inferior to whites; 25% thought blacks less intelligent than
whites. Appearances also seemed to be a problem: 20% thought that blacks looked
"scary"; 33% thought blacks were dirty; and 13% said they would move if a black
individual sat next to them. According to the reporter, respondents appeared to
distinguish between 'Westernized' blacks - Kofi Annan was cited positively -
and 'African' blacks.
The accusation of racism is always better taken
carefully. Informal surveys are of value only in determining types of
prejudices, but do not help much in determining the magnitude and limits of
racial intolerance. Level of education, lack of interaction with other races,
and ignorance should be taken into account when determining an individual's
alleged racism. This is not to justify acts of racism, but to distinguish
between its causes in different categories of people. In a nutshell, it is more
difficult to explain why a cosmopolitan Lebanese diplomat living in Paris
should treat her Ethiopian domestic worker as a virtual slave, then to explain
why a Lebanese villager, with a rudimentary education, should express suspicion
of blacks, whom he almost never deals with.
And yet racism, in its
various manifestations, most definitely exists. In July 1998 a 27-year-old
Sudanese student, Lewi Mursale, was robbed by three men in Dikwaneh. When he
went to the police to report the robbery, they refused to believe his story,
even though he was bleeding. They also refused to provide him with a written
report of the crime, and nearly incarcerated him when he insisted, once again,
that he was telling the truth.
Does it matter whether one is an Arab
migrant worker? The fact that Arab migrants speak the same language as Lebanese
does somewhat improve relations. However, Arab manual workers are also victims
of the status accompanying their jobs which, as noted earlier, are often
menial. This appears to justify the long backbreaking hours employers will
impose on them, in conditions that are often deplorable. While one cannot
really mention, in the Arabs' case, a racist impulse, there is often in
relations between Lebanese and Arab migrants the palpable scorn that tends to
color relations between a destitute and dependent worker, and an employer or
overseer with authority over him (or her).
There is a fundamental
problem in trying to determine the motivation for abusive behavior of migrant
workers. It somehow misses the point whether the cause is racism, a sense of
socio-economic superiority, or something else. It seems more likely that those
engaging in flagrant abuse are frequently colorblind: in other words,
individuals who severely mistreat migrant workers are likely also to mistreat
Lebanese employees or, even, members of their own family. It is probably quite
rare to see individuals who are genuinely irreproachable in their daily life
suddenly turn against their domestic workers and brutalize them. In other
words, mistreatment is too often caught up in the myriad other prejudices and
idiosyncrasies of individuals to be so easily identifiable as racism.
Before one seeks to change Lebanese attitudes towards migrant workers - an
ambitious objective in itself - it is necessary to provide migrants with a
legal framework which ensures that their rights are protected. Only once it is
realized that migrant workers have rights, and that these are protected by law,
will attitudes in Lebanon begin to change, as will, hopefully, the more abusive
forms of behavior. This means a transformation in enforcement of the law,
affecting, among others, magistrates, the police, and the security organs. That
is not too utopian an objective, since the revitalization and reform of the
security and judicial hierarchy is an inherent part of the reconstruction
effort Lebanon has been engaged in since 1990.
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1. See unpublished report (in French) by Father
Martin McDermott, based on an October 1998 report to the Committee on Pastoral
Care of Afro-Asian Workers, of which McDermott is coordinator.
with Roger Hanna, the lawyer for the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut.
a good account of the 'importation' of Sri Lankan workers in Lebanon, see Reem
Haddad, "A Modern-Day 'Slave Trade': Sri Lankan Workers in Lebanon," in Middle
East Report, Summer 1999, pp.39-41. See, also, Marie-Odile et Xavier Favre,
"Trafic de 'servantes' à Beyrouth," Le Monde diplomatique, Juin, 1998,
4. See Haddad, op. cit., page 39.
5. Interview with Father
Martin McDermott, February 8, 2000.
6. See Scarlett Haddad, "La grande
détresse des domestiques sri lankais au Liban", L'Orient-Le Jour, July
7. Unpublished report by Father Martin McDermott, op. cit.
Interview with Father Martin McDermott.
9. See Julie Hannouche, "Modern-day
Slavery: A Maid in Lebanon," in the Daily Star, November 21, 1998.
Naccash quoted in Reem Haddad, op. cit., page 40.
11. The specifics of the
incident are taken from two articles written by Reem Haddad for the Daily Star
of July 5, 1999 and July 28, 1999; apparently it is Haddad's persistence that
led to the eventual release of Mendis.
12. This is a mandatory fee for
processing travel documents for non-Lebanese who lose their passports in
Lebanon. See Haddad, "A Modern-Day 'Slave Trade'," op. cit., page 39.
Liberty of movement is guaranteed by Article 39 of the International Convention
on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their
14. Article 25 notes that migrant workers "shall enjoy treatment
no less favorable than that which applies to nationals of the State of
employment in respect of remuneration and: (a) Other conditions of work, that
is to say, overtime, hours of work, weekly rest, holidays with pay, safety,
health, termination of the employment relationship and any other conditions of
work which, according to national law and practice, are covered by these
15. See below.
16. The lawyer is Mirella Abdel Sater, quoted
in Haddad, "A Modern-Day 'Slave Trade'," op. cit., page 40.
Hannouche, op. cit.
18. Father Martin McDermott, who helps Afro-Asian
migrants, estimated that he had, on average, one to two complaints per week,
though these need not imply physical mistreatment. Interview, February 8, 2000.
19. The details of the incident are recounted by Helen Khal in the Daily
Star, February 8, 1999.
20. See Haddad, "A Modern-Day 'Slave Trade', op.
cit., page 41.
21. See Reem Haddad, "Ministers Tackle Mistreatment of Sri
Lankans," in the Daily Star, February 3, 1999.
Unpublished report by Father Martin McDermott, op. cit.
See Reem Haddad, "Housekeeper Says Policemen Tried to Beat Confession Out of
Her", the Daily Star, October 6, 1998.
Hannouche, op. cit.
29. See Reem Haddad, "Race Hate: Hurled From a Window
for Being Black", the Daily Star, July 27, 1998.
30. The Lebanese diplomat
was Donna Turk. In a diplomatic cause célébre, Turk was quietly
returned to Beirut after the French authorities learned that she treated her
Ethiopian housemaid inhumanely: the housemaid was locked indoors, deprived of
her passport, denied a salary, made to sleep on the kitchen floor, and forced
to work long hours. See Thierry Parisot, "Quand l'immigration tourne à
l'esclavage", Le Monde diplomatique, Juin 1998, pp.20-21.
31. See Haddad,
"Race Hate", op. cit.
32. See, for example, Amro Saad el-Din, "Al shabab
al-'arab al-'amiloun fi lubnan, zaman al-hijrah wal-'izlat fi
imberatoriyyat-fawdah", Al-Safir, November 5, 1998.
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