||Migrant Workers in Lebanon
- CHAPTER FOUR -
- Chapter one
- Chapter two
- Chapter three
An Assessment of the Condition of
in Lebanon, and Prospects
6-Lebanon and the
foreign missions of migrant workers
One disturbing feature of the relationship
between the state and migrant workers, is the relatively limited impact
embassies (or consulates) have on Lebanese policy affecting their migrant
worker nationals. Indeed, neither the Lebanese state nor the embassies appear
willing to modify the equilibrium existing between them. Nor do they appear to
be willing to consider that this equilibrium can be improved to the better
advantage of all sides concerned. We will examine this relationship, and also,
later, look into possible ways foreign governments can improve the lot of their
migrant nationals in Lebanon.
To be blunt, the limited effectiveness of
embassies is often self-inflicted. One problem, which will continue as a source
of difficulty for some foreign embassies, is Lebanon's attractiveness as a
source of hard currency. For as long as foreign countries depend on remittances
from Lebanon, the Lebanese will be able to maintain the upper hand in
negotiations - or imbroglios - over migrant issues. This situation, though to
Lebanon's advantage, is unhealthy, since it tends to create an unbalanced
relationship between the Lebanese authorities and their embassy counterparts -
certainly far different than the relationship between the Lebanese and Western
embassies. As shown earlier, this relationship may, at times, manifest itself
in a profound lack of esteem for the embassies representing migrant workers.
This, alas, makes infinitely more complicated joint agreement on conditions
favoring the plight of migrant workers.
It is preferable for the sake of
migrant workers that the relationship between the Lebanese government and
embassies representing them be improved and enhanced. For the moment, neither
side, particularly foreign embassies, is willing to rock the boat by raising
migrants' problems, which may prove divisive. There are frequent reports of
embassies' avoiding forcing a confrontation with the Lebanese over detained
migrants workers, despite the poor conditions and frequent long delays in their
detentions. And yet, it is clear that some sort of representation on behalf of
prisoners could help speed up a legal decision on their fate, or ensure that
they are properly treated.
There are two other domains in which foreign
embassies and the Lebanese authorities can play a more collaborative role,
though this is dependent on both sides' willingness to comply. The first
involves migrant contracts. While some embassies have sought to exert greater
control over contracts, this has been undermined to a large extent by the
presence of many illegal migrants who are without contracts. Two steps are
required: first, for embassies to ensure that they have a final say on all
contracts, a move which will require Lebanese government acquiescence. And
second, for the embassies to devise, with the Lebanese authorities, a procedure
to insure that those migrant workers without contracts be provided with a
status that either allows them to find legal employment or leave Lebanon.
Significantly, the Lebanese government took such measures last summer, giving
migrants who arrived legally, but who have since turned illegal, a three-month
time frame to regularize their papers, and illegal migrants a period to leave
A second domain where foreign embassies and the Lebanese
authorities can collaborate is on migrants' papers. While the confiscation of a
migrant's identification papers is unlawful and should be addressed by the
Lebanese authorities accordingly, one of the things giving employers power over
their migrant employees is the prohibitive cost of acquiring new papers. As
noted in Chapter Two, the Lebanese authorities demand a $900 fee to replace
travel documents. This often prevents workers from replacing their confiscated
documents, in effect making them prisoners in Lebanon.
must attempt, with the Lebanese, to remedy this situation, since the
end-product is the expansion of the illegal migrant worker population in
Lebanon. A collaborative effort may seek to find a middle ground, insuring that
abused migrant workers may be allowed to leave Lebanon if they so desire, while
also making sure that those who should not be allowed to leave - perhaps due to
a crime or failure to fulfill a contractual obligation - be detained.
leads to the more fundamental problem of detention. One of the obstacles
preventing the legalization of the status of (non-Syrian) illegal migrant
workers is the pervading fear on their part that, if they make their presence
known, they will be detained and expelled. As noted in Chapter Two,
administrative expulsion is common, even though the law specifies that only
judicial expulsion is allowed. Moreover, the Lebanese authorities have not made
things simple: a migrant is often liable for back-payment of financial
penalties, even if these were defaulted upon by her or his employer.
is no rule on expulsions, however: sometimes the employee pays, sometimes the
employer does, and sometimes NGOs do. Ironically, in most cases the Lebanese
government pays for expulsions. On balance, the situation appears to be to
Lebanon's disfavor: fear of detention by migrants augments the population of
illegal migrants, while actual detention forces the government to take on the
added financial burden of caring for those who are incarcerated.
may be for the Lebanese authorities and foreign embassies to set up an ad hoc
body to better collaborate. Such a forum would allow the embassies to raise the
issues they need to address. A more permanent structure could be established
subsequently if required. The groundwork of a new relationship needs to be put
in place. For this to happen, there must be a recognition on the part of the
Lebanese government that its relationship with countries sending migrant
workers is different than with most other countries. This means recognizing
that new structures and patterns of bilateral behavior must be introduced. For
the moment, however, Lebanon appears to be very far from even as basic an
assumption as this.
back to top
It is a too easy to blame the Lebanese alone
for the problems confronting migrant workers. Part of the responsibility must
be shared by the embassies representing the workers, who have not always acted
(and do not always act) in the best interests of their nationals. Where is
there room for improvement?
On several occasions, migrant workers and
Lebanese activists encouraged those foreign countries with nationals working in
Lebanon to open full-fledged embassies in the country. Their primary motivation
was to limit migrants' reliance on local honorary consuls. Workers complained,
legitimately, that Lebanese honorary consuls were more interested in exploiting
them than providing proper diplomatic services. At the same time, they argued,
only the presence of an embassy provided the range of activities and assistance
required by relatively sizable migrant worker communities. The expenses
involved in opening an embassy, however, are often prohibitive for some of the
poorer nations. In that case, diplomatic representatives stationed in other
parts of the region must be encouraged to visit Lebanon as often as they can.
The presence of diplomatic representatives is usually indispensable to
insure that foreign workers are even moderately well treated. Egypt's strong
diplomatic presence is what allowed an agreement to be reached with the
Lebanese government in 1997 to legalize tens of thousands of Egyptian workers.
Similarly, it is only once the Sri Lanka and Philippines embassies - and the
Ethiopian consulate more recently - opened in Beirut that there was an
improvement, albeit slow, in the conditions of their nationals. Ghana's
ambassador to Lebanon, while he resides in Cairo, was reportedly instrumental
in bringing about an agreement between the Lebanese authorities and his
government, leading to the release and deportation of Ghanaians who had been
detained in Lebanon. This happened, however, because the ambassador physically
came to Lebanon to negotiate an agreement.
Embassies must also be more
assertive when protecting the legal rights of their nationals, particularly
those who have been mistreated, raped, or imprisoned. The evidence suggests
that many embassies err on the side of caution when confronted with such
situations, since the costs of action are often potentially greater than those
of inaction. However, an embassy's bureaucratic timidity vis-à-vis a
host government often leads to the gradual undermining of the embassy's
effectiveness to the advantage of the host government. This can hardly be to
the advantage, or liking, of any foreign mission.
Embassies can also have
a significant role to play in legal proceedings involving their migrants. As
noted earlier, judicial procedures can be substantially speeded up once a
migrant worker who is in prison gains legal representation. To be most
effective, this process requires close cooperation with Lebanon's Bar
associations, whether in Beirut or North Lebanon, and with non-governmental
organizations, who often are best able to mobilize networks of lawyers. One
might add that an ad hoc grouping of embassies having large migrant worker
communities in Lebanon might be useful, both do deal specifically with legal
problems and with other issues common to their nationals.
Yet another role
which embassies can and must play is that as a clearing house of information.
This can mean various things: an embassy can be a provider of information to
migrant workers themselves, who are always in need of facts and advice on their
status in a country whose details, and system, most are unaware of. Embassies
can also provide information and, when relevant, administrative assistance to
those organizations or individuals assisting migrant workers. This is already
done to a certain extent, but the process has yet to be fully
institutionalized. And, embassies can play a more aggressive role as dispensers
of information to media outlets. This is a role that some embassies will play
unwillingly, however, since they have no interest in alerting up-and-coming
migrants at home of the potential problems which may confront them in Lebanese
society. This would make workers less likely to travel and, therefore, threaten
the flow of much-needed financial remittances.
This begs the obvious
question, however: wouldn't highlighting the plight of abused migrant workers
lead to an improvement in their lot in general? After all this would prompt
both the migrants' governments and the Lebanese to cooperate in improving
workers' conditions. And wouldn't this, in turn, ultimately encourage more
workers to travel to Lebanon? The answer is probably 'yes', though one again
confronts a problem: Bureaucratic inertia is a powerful force reinforcing the
status quo. Tinkering with a functioning system, albeit an imperfect one, may
provide only marginal advantages and great potential costs.
it is difficult to advocate a laissez-faire policy for embassies when there has
been, for example, criminal abuse of their nationals. In such cases, one would
assume, the media becomes a natural ally for foreign missions whose primary
objective should be the defense of the interests of their nationals. Moreover,
the highlighting of abuse need not necessarily to lead to a crisis if it is
properly managed. If anything, it may compel, as it has in the past, the
Lebanese authorities to act more forcefully against unlawful behavior. At the
same time, whenever foreign embassies in Lebanon have been suspected back home
of objectively siding with those abusing migrant workers, the political
backlash has been severe, embarrassing the home authorities and their local
back to top
networks of migrant workers
One can argue, again, that the networks of
migrant workers have reached an unsettled equilibrium of sorts. In other words,
a variety of services are available, diverse forms of assistance are provided,
and a division of labor among NGOs in their dealings with migrants is apparent.
All this adds up to a situation that is adequate, yet which can be improved.
The Lebanese state can help in this regard. However, given its
difficulties, in particular the bloated and under-trained civil service, it
would be counterproductive to propose a substantial expansion in its
responsibilities regarding migrants. More bureaucracy is undesirable. That is
why it would be preferable for the state and non-governmental organizations
concerned with migrant affairs, to define optimal means of cooperation that
ensure that migrant workers not become too much of a burden on the authorities.
One can start by advancing a proposition: An effective network of NGOs
which cares for migrant workers, gathers accurate information on their
situation, and is allowed to mediate between the workers and the state, will
allow the authorities to limit the problems accompanying the migrants' presence
and reduce the state's costs in controlling this presence. What would such an
approach entail? Several of the proposals made earlier in this chapter,
including more effective implementation of the law, even a streamlining of
legal procedures, would greatly reduce the existing burdens on migrant
networks, in particular NGO-based assistance networks. That is because many of
their efforts and finances go to resolving problems that could otherwise be
avoided if the law were properly implemented, or if legal procedures were more
It may also be time to reflect on the advantages of
establishing a more enduring structure bringing together relevant NGOs and
state representatives to address migrant workers' issues. Links between the
state and NGOs are constant, but they are also, generally, organized on an ad
hoc basis. This means that they are inadequate forums for policy-making. A
permanent or semi-permanent structure could go hand in hand with the opening of
a special government bureau to deal with migrant affairs. While some may argue
that a joint NGO-state structure smacks of corporatism, its mandate need not be
overbearing. Rather, it could act as a much-needed conduit for the transfer of
information and the exchange of ideas.
What of the networks themselves?
Financial constraints are always a problem, both for migrant organizations and
Lebanese NGOs. This affects a variety of activities, in particular the securing
of medical and legal aid, which is often offered by volunteers for free. This
is hardly the place to make suggestions on the fundraising capacities of those
organizations dealing with migrant workers' affairs. However, the situation
suggests that while NGOs do cooperate, there often is considerable room for
enhanced coordination. This is in no small part due to the limited means, and
the different objectives, of the organizations involved.
For example, the
PCAAM network is mostly run by priests and nuns, who devote most if not all of
their time to migrant affairs. Their priority, however, is to use the
assistance as a forum for Christian spiritual guidance, though this should not
be confused with proselytism. In many respects their efforts are admirable, yet
the means at their disposal are often meager. This imposes a severe constraint
on capacity, and tends to create an informal atmosphere that is humane yet
inefficient. Does this mean that such organizations must be done away with?
Certainly not. Had it not been specific individuals in the PCAAM network an
immense void would exist in migrant workers' assistance networks. However, one
can question whether efforts that rely so heavily on well-intentioned
individuals have the same staying power as those which would be provided on
solider bases. There appears to be room for more structured efforts, which
could complement those already existing.
Another observation is that there
are very useful existing initiatives which can be expanded upon. For example,
the Solidarity newsletter published by the Afro-Asian Migrant Center (AAMC) is
a very practical dispenser of information and advice. However, because of
limited funds, it is produced on a quarterly basis. A monthly publication, if
one were financially possible, would be more useful, since it could further
bring together migrants of various backgrounds, while creating an axis for
concerted efforts in specific crises.
Similarly, the idea of radio
programs can be expanded upon. As the current range of programs are essentially
religiously-based, perhaps there is room for more secular programs, which would
perhaps appeal more to the majority of migrant workers who are not Christians.
In both cases, some sort of supervisory authority would probably be required,
so that the media do not become forums for strife, whether between migrants
themselves, or between migrants and the Lebanese authorities.
interesting idea is migrant self-financing, as shown in the example of the Sri
Lankan Welfare Association. While such initiatives are, of necessity, limited
in their financial impact, they do build up solidarity networks that can be
useful in a variety of circumstances. An essential ingredient in a smoother
relationship between migrant workers and their Lebanese employers is the
recognition by migrants of their power as a collectivity, at least as regards
social, medical, and human rights conditions.
Given the suspicions of the
Lebanese authorities towards anything that may constitute a framework for
independent political or militant activity, it may be preferable for solidarity
networks to be in contact - though not coordinated - with the authorities.
Lebanese NGOs may have a role to play in this. Solidarity networks, if allowed
to grow, have the advantage of limiting the responsibility of the state,
redistributing migrant wealth to migrants, and heightening migrants
consciousness of their collective strength. The latter, in turn, will be
helpful in the establishment of a new equilibrium between migrant workers and
back to top
9-The 'new slavery'
and changing attitudes
Lebanese society is gradually changing for
the better in its dealings with and attitudes towards migrant workers. This
does not mean that an optimal situation has been reached. However, migrant
workers have a more balanced presence in Lebanese society than they did
previously. Their networks have developed, several Lebanese and other
organizations function on their behalf, and public consciousness has been
repeatedly confronted with tales of the abuse suffered particularly by domestic
workers. The notion of the 'new slavery' is comprehensible for many more people
than was the case before. There is now some embarrassment in having it known
that one mistreated a domestic worker.
One thing must be remembered,
however: the mistreatment of migrant workers need not imply that they are
specifically targeted because of their ethnic characteristics. The accusation
that most Lebanese are racists is not a satisfactory explanation for abuse. As
one lawyer put it: "You do not, if you are a kindly person, suddenly mistreat
your servant because she is of a different color." In other words, the problems
facing migrant workers in Lebanon, though linked to an often unhealthy
hierarchical situation, are often symptomatic of problems affecting
non-Lebanese and Lebanese alike.
Indeed, if an employer beats a domestic
worker, the chances are that he would not hesitate to beat his wife or
children. If a domestic worker is mistreated by a policeman, then there is a
very good chance that so too are Lebanese or other Arab detainees. Migrants may
well be paid meager wages, but there are countless examples of Lebanese
citizens who, despite the protection of the law, are paid low wages and asked
to work for long hours. The treatment an employee receives is, in the end,
largely a function of the nature of his or her employer.
With this in mind,
one can make a series of general proposals which may help to ensure that
migrant workers in Lebanon are less likely of becoming victims of a 'new
slavery.' A first step must be to ensure that young Lebanese are educated
increasingly in what is considered normative behavior regarding migrant
workers. There is considerable evidence, for example, to show that children
whose families hire domestic migrants tend to be taken up in the hierarchical
relationship that ensues. Like their parents, who indeed often reinforce such
attitudes, children become adept at issuing orders. Naturally, any effort to
remedy this would be part of larger civics curriculum, affecting not only
children's relationships with migrants, but with others in general.
problem is more complicated for adults employing migrants. There is nothing
strictly illegal in physically working a migrant employee for twelve to
eighteen hours a day, since migrants are not covered by Lebanese labor law.
However, by any most accepted standards of behavior, such treatment is abusive.
Can attitudes be changed in this regard? For as long as there is an ample
supply of workers willing to work longer hours for less pay, the answer is
'no'. Yet habits have a way of taking shape, even when the laws of the market
dictate otherwise. If there is a concerted campaign to lessen working hours by
those favoring better working conditions for migrants - perhaps through the
media - attitudes may gradually alter. The target of such efforts would be the
state, which would gradually be questioned by international organizations
concerned with improving migrant labor conditions.
The objective would be
to establish more equitable limits for working hours. This should not lead to
an assumption, however, that strict rules will be imposed on hours of work.
Since most migrant workers are illegal, the primary objective should be to
achieve what is achievable: in this case create a wider understanding that
workers must be allowed a larger share of leisure time. That is easier said
than done, particularly when migrant workers willingly accept the forbidding
conditions under which they are made to work.
As one examines possible
avenues of policy to improve the lot of migrant workers in Lebanon, a major
obstacle appears: the presence in the country of Syrian laborers. Because of
Syrian influence over Lebanese affairs, because of the great sensitivity of
migrant workers' issues in the Lebanese-Syrian relationship, it is difficult
for the Lebanese to develop a new framework updating the rapport between the
Lebanese state and all migrant workers. We can agree that the present system
works, but that it remains most imperfect. Yet can we insure that any effort to
improve the present state of affairs will not generate too great a stress on
the system due to the presence of Syrian laborers? Probably not.
presence of Syrian laborers is a political matter having also social
implications. At present it is virtually unmanageable from a policy
perspective. This creates an incongruous situation in terms of the authority of
the Lebanese state over migrant workers: On the one hand the state has a
definite impact on the fate of certain Arab and all non-Arab migrants from
Africa and Asia; on the other it has very little to say, or do, on Syrian
laborers. In effect, any policy the state currently seeks to develop may
potentially affect only the (sizable) minority of migrant workers who are not
Syrian. At the same time, all policies, even those that may be helpful, which
may significantly alter the status of Syrian migrant workers are usually
This bizarre, almost schizophrenic situation has been visible
throughout the study. It represents a weakness in the study's methodology,
undoubtedly, but more significantly it reflects what a large, self-inflicted
policy vacuum the Lebanese authorities are maneuvering in. That is why we must
keep in mind that no matter what is done to improve the lot of migrant workers,
including those from Syria, there will be severe constraints on the
government's margin of maneuverability due to the fact that its policies may
often have political implications.
back to top
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.
3. For this and
subsequent information in the section see Peter Speetjens, "Caritas Provides
Help for Migrants of All Nations", the Daily Star, January 20, 1998.
Al-'Azariyya, or Lazarists, is simply what the Lebanese call the Daughters of
5. Interview with Sister Amelia Torres, April 19, 2000.
7. Interview with Sister Amelia Torres, op. cit.
estimates are those of Father Salim Rizkallah.
9. Information for the
section comes from an interview with Father Salim Rizkallah, April 19, 2000.
10. For information in this section, see Reem Haddad, "The Safety Net for
Those Who Have Furthest to Fall", in the Daily Star, April 21, 2000.
Interview with Sister Amelia, op. cit. See, also, Solidarity, April 2000, pp. 8
and 11. The publication is prepared by Afro-Asian migrants in Lebanon, and
published at the Afro-Asian Migrant Center.
12. Interview with Father
Salim Rizkallah, op. cit.
13. See Solidarity, April 2000, page 4.
16. Interview with George Assaf, April 25, 2000. Assaf
was the person responsible for establishing the Legal Aid Commission, though he
no longer heads it.
17. Interview with Father Martin McDermott, February
18. Ibid. One should also note that the Philippines appeared less
willing to sanction abuse of its workers following the much-publicized case of
Sarah Balabagan, a housemaid who was accused of murdering her abusive employer
in the United Arab Emirates. Balabagan was released in August 1996 following a
furor in the Philippines at the death sentence (later commuted) passed against
her. See David McMurray, "Recent Trends in Middle East Migration", Middle East
Report, Spring 1999, pp.16-19.
19. Interview with Father Salim Rizkallah,
op. cit. See also Solidarity, April 2000, page 9.
20. Interview with
Sister Amelia, op. cit. The ambassador, Mr. Twumase, visited Lebanon in January
2000. It should be recalled that Ghana has a battalion in the United Nations
Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), which means that its interest in affairs in
Lebanon is more than marginal. See also Solidarity, April 2000, page 10-11.
21. Interview with Father Martin McDermott, op. cit.
22. The details of
the account are taken from Reem Haddad, "Debate Raging Over Insuring Sri
Lankans", the Daily Star, June 19, 1999.
23. See Reem Haddad, "Sri Lankans
Sort Out Their Insurance Problem", the Daily Star, July 27, 1999.
Interview with Father Salim Rizkallah, op. cit.
26. Ibid. His
attitude is, incidentally, shared by certain Sri Lankan migrant workers.
back to top