||Migrant Workers in Lebanon
- CHAPTER THREE -
- Chapter one
- Chapter two
- Chapter four
The Networks and Activities of
Workers in Lebanon
As the number of migrant workers has
increased in Lebanon, so too have social and assistance networks catering to
them. In this chapter, we will examine such relief and assistance networks,
including those involved in legal, social, and health assistance. We will then
look more closely at the social or cultural groups established by migrant
workers, as well as other activities. A third and essential aspect of migrant
workers' networks in Lebanon is their relationship with their national
embassies. As we shall see, some embassies have sought, with various degrees of
success, to regulate and improve the life of their nationals in Lebanon.
Finally, we will look at the leisure and entertainment networks of migrant
workers, including radio stations broadcasting programs in migrants' languages,
sports activities, and cultural activities.
Most of the activities and
networks of migrant workers are those conducted by, and for, non-Arab
Afro-Asian migrants. This doesn't mean that Arab migrants, particularly
Egyptians, have no networks or are not in need of the assistance that gives
rise to the informal structures described in what follows. Indeed, some of the
bodies described - in particular some of the legal assistance organizations -
deal with Arab and non-Arab migrants. However, the Egyptian embassy in Lebanon
has been better able to protect Egyptians from abuse, and was even able to
negotiate a legal status for many of them two years ago. The Egyptians are in
less need of formal structures than non-Arab migrants, who have little if any
cultural affinity with the Lebanese. Their networks, therefore, tend to be more
informal, based simply on friendship, common geographical origin with fellow
workers, family ties, and the like.
The same can be said of the Syrians,
who are in a category of their own. The geographical proximity of Syria and
Syrian influence in Lebanon contribute to giving Syrians the networks and
protection, within specific limits, that is denied non-Arab migrant workers.
What follows should not be taken as an exhaustive description of migrant
networks. Rather it is a thumbnail sketch of the more significant organizations
and bodies helping migrant workers, and particularly those from non-Arab
countries in Africa and Asia.
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2-Pastoral Care of Afro-Asian
Probably the most active assistance and
relief network for migrant workers is that provided under the umbrella of the
Pastoral Care of Afro-Asian Migrants (PCAAM). The PCAAM, an institution of the
Catholic church, coordinates the independent, yet often parallel, activities of
three bodies: the Caritas Migrant Center, the Afro-Asian Migrant Center, and
Laksehta. The PCAAM is officially directed by Father Paul Bassim, however its
activities are mostly carried out and supervised by its coordinator, Father
Martin McDermott, a Jesuit priest at Université St. Joseph in Beirut.
The PCAAM is largely concerned with the fate of migrants from those
non-Arab African and Asian countries with Christian communities. This does not
mean that the efforts of the organizations whose tasks it coordinates are
directed solely at Christians. Quite the contrary. Rather, it is outside the
scope, or means, of the PCAAM to deal with the hundreds of thousands of mostly
Muslim migrant workers from Arab countries, who have informal networks of their
own. The PCAAM does deal with Sudanese refugees, however, many of whom are
Christians from the south of Sudan.
The establishment of the PCAAM came
after more than a decade of involvement by Catholic priests and nuns in
assisting migrant workers. This was demonstrated, as of the early 1980s, by
priests' saying mass in English for those migrant workers who spoke the
language. After several efforts to give a legal status to a body assisting
migrant workers, in 1997 the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops
established a sub-committee of the Episcopal Commission for Missionary
Activity: The sub-committee was the PCAAM.
The role of PCAAM is to
provide, in Martin McDermott's words, "pastoral care". This he defines,
however, as "not only religious assistance, but also social and juridical
assistance." Among its tasks are maintaining a link between migrant workers and
their families back home, and maintaining such a link with the Church so that
the migrants' "stay in Lebanon can become a period of spiritual contentment and
instruction." This means, in addition, providing religious orientation and
The pronounced religious slant of the assistance provided by
the PCAAM is, nevertheless, accompanied by more practical concerns: the
provision of juridical assistance to migrants who have been abused or who are
in trouble. In 1998, the PCAAM employed seven lawyers - six Christians and one
Muslim - to help provide legal assistance. The lawyers generally work for free.
The organizations under the PCAAM umbrella also organize Sunday outings and
oversee radio broadcasts in several African and Asian languages.
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The Caritas Migrant Center, established by
the secretary-general of the Caritas Middle East-North Africa region, Johan
Garde, is located in Zalqa, in Beirut's eastern suburbs. The center carries out
a number of activities to help migrant workers solve the many problems they
face in Lebanon. Caritas helps migrants return home, if it is able to do so,
even at times helping pay for the ticket. If migrants are sick, the center
will sometimes see to it that the Caritas organization in their own country
takes care of them upon their return. Caritas will also help settle migrant
workers in a third country, if they have obtained papers to enter the country,
but have no funds to reach there.
The center also has a prison aid program
to take care of migrants who have been detained. Often such migrants are caught
with invalid working documents, or none at all, and spend time in detention
until they are deported. As noted in Chapter Two, it is often difficult for
migrant workers to leave Lebanon, whether because they are in the country
illegally or because their travel documents have been confiscated by their
employers. The confiscation of identity documents often imposes a prohibitive
cost on migrant workers, as the Lebanese authorities impose a high fee upon the
issuing of replacement papers. Unlike the other organizations under the PCAAM
umbrella, however, the Caritas Migrant Center does not lodge migrant workers.
Three other of the center's tasks are, first, to offer free medication to
impoverished migrant workers, dispensed through several mobile clinics. Second,
to deal with insurance companies, so that they will provide policies to those
workers under Caritas' care. And third, to provide advice and training in the
setting up of small businesses or in handicrafts.
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5-The Afro-Asian Migrant Center (St.
The Afro-Asian Migrant Center (AAMC), known
also as St. Vincent, is run by Sister Amelia, a Filipino nun of the Daughters
of Charity order who arrived in Lebanon in 1987. The center is located in an
annex of what is known as the 'Azariyya convent in Ashrafiyyeh. Sister
Amelia, though she operates under the general umbrella of the PCAAM, keeps her
order informed of what she is doing. As she sees it, the AAMC is part of the
wider efforts of her religious community, although she is the one who
established the center. The AAMC is open to all non-Arab Afro-Asians, though
the fact that Sister Amelia is from the Philippines tends to make it more
attractive to Filipinos.
The AAMC conducts a variety of activities,
religious and otherwise, for Afro-Asian migrants. Among its religious
activities is providing religious instruction and guidance to migrants. Indeed,
Sister Amelia noted that her first priority is spiritual assistance. This she
does, partly, through her presentation of a 25-minute program in Tagalog on the
Voice of Charity radio station on Saturday evenings. One of the features of
the program is a reading of the next day's gospel, though the program also
dispenses advice, publicizes forthcoming activities, and mentions birthdays.
Its main objective appears to be to bind the migrant worker community together,
particularly domestic workers, on the implicit assumption that a united migrant
community is less vulnerable to exploitation. As Sister Amelia remarked, one of
her goals in the radio program is to "encourage those who are imprisoned in
The AAMC also conducts a variety of non-religious
activities. These include, like the Caritas Migrant Center, assisting prisoners
and helping migrant workers in need of legal aid. The number of migrants in
prison varies widely: at times, almost no one may be in prison, at others a few
hundred may be. For example, according to one estimate in April 2000, some
200-300 non-Arab Afro-Asian females were incarcerated. One should recall
that a vast majority of non-Arab Afro-Asians - perhaps 95% - are females.
Sister Amelia and her collaborators visit detention centers, provide detained
migrants with food, assistance, and an opportunity to alert someone as to their
fate. This is essential, since detained migrants without legal representation
may languish for long periods in jail while awaiting that that their fate be
The PCAAM network receives legal assistance from volunteer
lawyers. Sister Amelia noted that when a migrant worker comes to the AAMC for
legal help, she refers the matter to Father Martin McDermott, who contacts the
lawyers with whom the PCAAM works. As noted earlier, most of these work for
free. Similarly, there are several doctors who treat Afro-Asian migrant workers
The AAMC also lodges runaway migrants, who for one reason or
another have escaped from their places of employment. While safe houses are run
by the AAMC, they do no belong to the center, thereby introducing an element of
uncertainty into the sheltering process. Sister Amelia would prefer, if funding
is made available, to purchase an apartment to house runaways.
associated activity, provided thanks to the AAMC's links with the Daughters of
Charity, is the education of the children of migrant workers. Twelve children
of migrant workers attend the order's schools at St. Vincent and at Chamoun.
The AAMC hosts some of them on Sundays so that they can watch films and play.
Education of the children of migrant workers is a key, though understated,
feature of the migrant presence in Lebanon. There are no regulations imposing
the mandatory education of the children of migrants.
The AAMC also conducts
other activities. It publishes, with the assistance of migrant workers, a
quarterly newsletter entitled Solidarity. The first issue was published in
April 2000, and the publication acts as an informal link between the different
non-Arab Afro-Asian communities. The AAMC also organizes sports and other types
of events. Every Sunday evening, a film is projected at the center, and the
modest entry fee is used to purchase food for detained migrants. This is a
necessary measure in that detention facilities, because they are not legally
mandated, do not have an adequate infrastructure to feed those detained.
Migrants are also allowed to use the AAMC premises to organize parties or other
social activities, where they can cook their own food.
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The third body under the PCAAM umbrella is
Laksehta, which means 'haven of Sri Lanka' in Sinhalese. In 1988, during the
Lebanese war, a Lebanese Capuchin priest, Father Salim Rizkallah, traveled to
Sri Lanka to learn the language. There he was given over 800 dossiers of Sri
Lankans working in Lebanon, of whom nothing had been heard due to the
escalating fighting between Lebanese factions.
Upon his return, Father
Salim did three things to assist migrant workers, most of them female
domestics: First, he started a radio program on the Voice of Charity station in
Sinhalese and Tamil. Second, he set up a post office box to receive mail from
Sri Lanka. In those days, there was irregular mail service between Lebanon and
the rest of the world. Father Salim would announce, on his radio program, the
names of those who had received mail and where they could pick it up. And
third, he performed a variety of religious services for non-Arab Afro-Asians,
including weddings, baptisms, and burials.
Though he was eventually helped
by a Sri Lankan priest, Father Salim and his colleague decided that a nun would
be preferable to deal with the large numbers of women workers. They, therefore,
brought over a Sri Lankan nun from the Bon Pasteur order, Sister Angela, and
their joint efforts blossomed into Laksehta, which is based in Dora, in an
eastern suburb of Beirut.
Laksehta, like the Caritas Migrant Center and
AAMC, deals with a wide variety of migrant problems, and caters to all non-Arab
Afro-Asians. One of its activities is to visit detained migrants twice weekly,
and in 1999 the organization prepared 750 food packages for those incarcerated,
Laksehta also provides a refuge for women who have
run away from their places of employment. However, the halfway house is only a
temporary lodging while Father Salim attempts to find jobs for the women. At
times, he tries to mediate between the women and their employers, either to
regain their confiscated papers or to bring about a reconciliation. The former
effort may, at times, involve payments to employers, and confiscation of a
domestic worker's documents can become quite lucrative. If needed, Father Salim
also places the women in hospitals or, even, asylums.
Laksehta has also
bought twenty burial vaults at the Roman Catholic cemetery in Fanar to place
the remains of migrant workers who died in Lebanon. These may be Catholics or
non-Catholics. The organization also helps to repatriate bodies, in conjunction
with the Sri Lankan embassy, though Father Salim noted that he often encourages
families back home to avoid the great expense of repatriation. Rather, he
recommends that they save their money, or take what the insurance company will
pay out. At the end of a year, the remains are removed from the vault and
buried in a collective site after being placed in an identifiable bag. This
allows relatives to repatriate the remains at a later date.
Like the other
organizations under the PCAAM umbrella, Laksehta benefits from the informal
network of lawyers and doctors helping Father Martin McDermott in his efforts
on behalf of migrant workers. However, their numbers are limited and their
compensation virtually nil.
Migrant organizations and bodies
There are a
variety of organizations or groupings, both religious and non-religious,
established by migrants and catering to them. While some have well-defined
functions, most of the time there is overlap in their services, as they
simultaneously satisfy a variety of social, cultural, religious, and even
leisure needs. Many, but not all, of these groupings are linked in one way or
another to the PCAAM network, or more specifically to the priests or nuns in
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