BEIRUT: Sara came to Lebanon from Ethiopia when she was just 20-years-old. Today, 13 years later, her name is on an official embassy list of over 500 Ethiopians that are being repatriated back to their home country as Lebanon's severe economic crises aggravates the already dire situation of migrant workers in the country.
One year ago, Sara, who works as a maid in a hotel, used to be able to send $200 of her $550 monthly salary back home to her family. However, the worsening economic crisis is having a major impact across all industries, including the hospitality sector with hundreds of restaurants, hotels and bars closing down, and the migrant workers who occupy low skilled jobs are finding themselves in an increasingly difficult situation. "Even though my salary is quoted in dollars, they are now paying me in lira at a very devalued rate," Sara says. Not only has the Lebanese pound plunged to new lows with it trading at L.L.2,568 to the dollar on black markets as of Wednesday morning, but international money transfers such as Western Union do not accept lira – forcing migrants to shave 30 percent off their salary in the exchange.
Now, Sara is likely to board the plane back to Addis Ababa next month with nothing more than the few liras that she has left for her daily expenses. "I don't know what I am going back to," she says.
With more migrant workers seeking to leave the country, General Security has recently agreed to expedite the repatriation process. There are an estimated 300,000 legal migrant workers in Lebanon today, according to Rahaf Dandash who works as a coordinator at the Migrant Community Center in Ashrafieh.
However, this number does not account for the many thousands of undocumented workers. Whereas illegal migrant workers previously had to pay for each year that they had stayed in the country before deportation, the new arrangement has reduced this to a one-year penalty, amounting to L.L.400,000 for men and L.L.300,000 for women.
"It is simply us doing our bit to address the issue," said Col. Tarek Dakya at General Security, who noted that this concession is not an official or formal policy. It should also be noted that many workers do not have legal status because their sponsors are not willing to pay for their residency permit. ''Sponsors often do not pay the iqama (residency permit) that is required of them by law,'' explains Mohanna Ishak, a lawyer with KAFA, an NGO combating gender-based exploitation in Lebanon.
The Daily Star spoke with the Bangladeshi ambassador following an incident outside their embassy when a crowd of 400 migrants gathered outside the embassy in Bir Hasan on Feb. 4 demanding expedited exit visas from the country. "General Security can only approve 200 names a month for repatriation and I need to register 2,000 names a month!," Ambassador Abdul-Moetab Sarkar said.
According to the Ambassador, the new agreement with General Security is a "win-win for both sides," as it makes repatriation more financially possible for migrants while drawing in state revenue from penalty payments. ''In many cases, it is the employers' fault workers do not have valid papers, and there are regular abuses regarding pay and working hours,'' Sarkar observed.
While the Bangladeshi Embassy is working with General Security on repatriation issues, they are not paying or subsidizing tickets back home or the penalties.
In comparison, the Philippine Embassy has responded to unusually high repatriation demands by establishing a Free Voluntary Mass Deportation Program last December. The scheme covers the full cost of repatriation for migrants. 1,800 people have already left under the scheme so far. Bernadita Catalla, the Philippine ambassador in Lebanon, however was cautious of jumping to conclusions. "It's difficult to quantify how many wish to return home. We have had incidents of individuals not showing up for flights we have booked them on," Catalla told The Daily Star last month. It is important to note that the Philippine government has banned unskilled workers from entering Lebanon, although many still do, and there are more Philippine workers who are working in more skilled jobs – such as chefs – as compared to migrant workers from Ethiopia, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.
While it is potentially too early to speak of mass flight from Lebanon, it is very clear that Lebanon's economic difficulties have pushed migrant workers into very difficult situations.
While the financial circumstances inside the country are proving increasingly impossible, the cost of repatriation is still too high for many workers – especially if their embassies are not covering ticket costs. As a result, many are still stuck in Lebanon where the economic crisis is encouraging long-standing abusive practices toward migrant workers.
The outbreak of popular protests last October re-energized movements promoting migrant rights in Lebanon. "We cannot have a revolution unless we talk about the rights of everyone," Dandash said. All migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are bound by the Kafala system that ties their legal permit in Lebanon to their employer. This leads to major abuses including forced labor and trafficking as workers lose their legal status if they break off from their sponsored employer.
"The abolition of the Kafala system needs to be on the table for the revolution but many of them do not feel safe participating because of the racism on the streets," she adds. For Tsigereda, a former Ethiopian migrant worker who is now a community activist fighting against the injustices of the Kafala system, the protests were only momentarily hopeful. "When the protest first started, I used to go [to] downtown with other MCC groups, but people would tell us to leave and say bad words to us and tell us that this was not our place to be," Tsigereda said, adding that instead of ushering in a promising new era for migrant workers, their situation has only worsened.
"Since protests began, we are seeing a rise in the case of unpaid salaries and employers are using the political and economic crisis to justify unpaid salaries, even though in many cases workers have gone over one or two years without pay," Tsigereda told The Daily Star.
Under the current crisis, she says that she receives between 10 or 15 cases everyday of workers being unpaid or being paid only a portion of their salary. This is exacerbating an existing condition under Kafala where workers are not always able to seek legal protection for going unpaid. In the most serious cases, many live-in domestic workers are subject to practices akin to slavery.
As the dollar shortage continues, many migrant workers are continuing to look toward their national embassies for help. Abdullah, a 30-year-old building attendant, like Sara, is trying to return to his home country.
"I used to transfer money back home to Bangladesh but now without dollars, I cannot do this," he says as he lingers outside the Bangladeshi Embassy. He is hoping to take a final flight to Dhaka in the coming months.