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The Migrant Workers

Migrant Workers in Lebanon
by Michael Young


  1. Preface
  2. Chapter one
  3. Chapter two
  4. Chapter four

The Networks and Activities of
Migrant Workers in Lebanon

1- Introduction

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 Migrants (PCAAM)

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.[1] 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."[2] This means, in addition, providing religious orientation and catechism.
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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4-Caritas Migrant Center

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.[3] 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. Vincent)

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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 their homes."[7]
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.[8] 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 determined.
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 for free.
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.
An 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.[9] 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, including non-migrants.
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 the network.

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