Beirut’s migrant workers persist in the shadow of the blastLack of sustainable employment and safe shelter has exposed even more people to trafficking or abuse by their employers.
Tsigereda, a 25-year-old Ethiopian, has become a leader for migrants suffering from exploitation and abuse at the hands of their employers. ‘Do you know how many girls are committing suicide? Imagine.’ [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
Beirut, Lebanon – The twin explosions in the Port of Beirut on August 4 exacerbated Lebanon’s deepening economic crisis, stranding thousands of destitute migrant workers without work and no clear route home.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates 24,500 migrants lost their jobs, homes or were directly affected in other ways by the Beirut blasts.
Lebanon’s 400,000 migrant workers hail from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Bangladesh, among other countries. They have taken great risks to work in Lebanon with hopes of earning US dollars and supporting their families back home.
Many came to Lebanon through the kafala system, a sponsorship-based employment scheme used by many countries in the Middle East that allows one to work while their employer doubles as their sponsor, handling their visa and legal status. While the system is intended to open jobs to migrants, it also exposes them to exploitation by placing great power in the hands of employers, many of whom confiscate their employees’ passports, making it extremely difficult to leave.
The economic crisis has now further destabilised the lives of many. The Lebanese pound has devalued by 80 percent since October 2019, leaving employers unable to pay wages and pushing migrant workers into debt, unable to pay for rent, food or other basic services, let alone send money to their families back home.
The rising number of evictions has forced many migrants to sleep in the streets, while others have pooled their money to rent rooms so small it is impossible to maintain physical distancing, creating potential breeding grounds for the spread of COVID-19.
Humanitarian agencies now worry the lack of sustainable employment and safe shelter will expose even more people to trafficking or abuse by their employers, forms of exploitation that already plagued the country’s migrant workers before the deadly blast.
Here are the faces of some of the migrant workers dwelling in the shadows of Beirut.
*Some names have been changed at their request
Mariatu was sending money home to support her family in Sierra Leone before she lost her job six months ago. Now she relies on them to meet her daily needs and pay rent on a bedroom shared with five other women while they await the chance to return to Sierra Leone. “For some of us, it’s our parents who are now sending us money because we’re suffering here. A while ago I sent them USD 600 but they ended up sending it all back to me.” said Mariatu. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
“They told me I would be making US$500 per month to clean houses. When I came and told my employer this she said, ‘What, do you think you’re a doctor? You’re not that valuable,’” said Tina*, a Sierra Leonean migrant. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
“Agents told me I would be working in a store as a salesgirl but instead I was taken to work in someone’s home. I worked only four months before corona[virus] began and I was kicked out of this house and left without work,” said Agnes, a Sierra Leonean woman in Beirut who now wishes to return home. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
The explosions in the Port of Beirut on August 4 have had devastating effects on many economically disadvantaged areas in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, which host large numbers of migrant workers and refugees. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
Bizualme came to work in Lebanon in 2017 and had been working as a house cleaner until she lost her job when the economic crisis started last year. She suffers from tuberculosis and has been too weak to leave the room she shares with a friend and her friend’s son in the past three months. “My TB is still active so I’m staying home and taking medication so that I don’t spread the disease. I don’t have enough food to feel strong. I know I need to be eating food that has more vitamins, but I can’t afford it,” she said. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
“When I came here, I met a lot of other Cameroonian girls who had problems, who didn’t go out at all, girls who experienced rape, who were not getting paid or didn’t have any days off. I thought to myself, why not select a group to help these girls,” said Cindy, a 29-year-old Cameroonian migrant. She runs a shelter for women who’ve escaped exploitative employment situations and is fundraising to pay for the travel costs of those who wish to return to Cameroon. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
Kenyan migrants pack their bags and check their weight limits before heading to the airport to fly back to Nairobi. This flight home comes after weeks of sit-in demonstrations at the Kenyan consulate by Kenyans expressing their wish to return home. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
Hilda*, a migrant from Kenya, has been sleeping outside the Kenyan consulate since she was evicted from her home a few months ago when she could no longer pay rent. “All this time I have had to lie to my family because I cannot tell them what I’ve been experiencing. I call and say, ‘Mum, just wait. We are working. We need to get our papers before I can get nice work. Then I will get a lot of money’. But now I haven’t worked for one year. Even if I tell my parents to send me money, where will they get it unless they sell their piece of land? I cannot sacrifice my family for me. I just have to endure,” she said. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
Natalie*, a Kenyan migrant, came to Lebanon to earn money to pay for her sibling’s education. She worked for two years but left after her employers became violent towards her. She was sleeping on the streets until a local organisation helped her find her way back to Kenya. “Since the economic crisis that began in October  it has become impossible for us to find work. We have been trying to survive with no jobs, no money, no medication. I wish people here would understand that we are human beings, we came to a country that is not our home and would like to be treated as they would want their friends, sisters, kids to be treated when they go to another place that is not their home,” Veronica said. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
Teresa has been sleeping outside the Kenyan consulate with hundreds of other Kenyan migrants since the apartment she was sharing with eight girls was damaged in the Beirut blast. “During the explosion, we were scared. We were trying to call each other. Where is this girl? Where is that girl? Eventually we found everyone who was missing in the hospital. We did not know what happened. We thought we were all going to die in Lebanon,” said Teresa. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]
Faruk, a Bangladeshi migrant in Beirut, was working as a day labourer until COVID-19 lockdowns closed down many businesses and he took out loans from his family to pay for the living costs for himself and a relative who joined him in Lebanon. “I’m approximately $6,000 in debt to family members in Bangladesh who now believe I am not a good person. I have land that I bought with the money I earned here. If I’m able to go back home, I’ll sell that to cover the debt and search for a job on a farm or as an electrician or try to open up a shop. God willing, I can get married,” he said. [Muse Mohammed/IOM]