Hidden slavery in Lebanon

Humedica engages for maidservants without any rights

by Merit Gröner,  2021/03/10

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude“ can be read in article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But for many foreign maids in the Middle East reality looks completely different. Their situation is worsened noticeably by inflation and economic crisis. Moreover, the COVID 19 pandemic presents further challenges for aid organizations like humedica and our Lebanese partner organization AMEL.

AMEL-employee hands over hygiene kit to former maidservant. Photo: amel association

In August 2020 an explosion had devastated the port of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. The heavy detonation had cost numerous lives, destroyed wide parts of the city and aggravated the situation of the population, which was already weakened before by a massive economic crisis and the COVID 19 pandemic. Today, about half a year later on, the images still stay with us. But some of the most endangered members of the population may well be the least known, too.

According to Amnesty International up to 250,000 maidservants of foreign origin live and work in Lebanon. It is estimated that the real figure is more than twice as high.

The living conditions of these young women, who had come mostly from Ethiopia to Beirut to work there as servants in the families of Lebanese families, have deteriorated drastically since the explosion also due to the consequences of COVID 19. As the health system in Beirut has long reached its limits and the infection rates are still rising sharply, the dramatic situation of the women is further pushed into the background.

Extra hours and no salary

Twenty hour-days, missing salaries, insufficient access to water and food – what is unthinkable for most of us is harsh reality for many migrant workers in Lebanon. Most women, who come from Ethiopia, Ghana, Bangladesh or the Philippines to earn money by cleaning, taking care of children and cooking in Lebanese households, are defenseless and at the mercy of the situation on site. They were lured with the promise to get paid in US Dollar so they could send the salaries to their families at home. In many cases the reality on site is totally different. The women, unable to know or to assess the risks involved, often become completely dependent of a system they can not leave without the consent of their employers. Even before the economic depression, the explosion and the lockdown many of them had been victims of physical, psychological and sexual violence by their employers.

Crisis in the crisis

Due to the pandemic and economic crises many employers can no longer afford to maintain their servants. Therefore, the women are frequently thrown out or dropped off in front of their respective embassies, where they have to camp provisionally and to hope for assistance. As their papers were taken from them immediately after their arrival, they are in a very precarious private and legal situation, which is unacceptable - even in situations without a pandemic. Without their papers, they have no access to urgently needed masks, protective equipment, medical care or COVID 19 tests. Thus, especially their identification becomes a major hurdle.

Hunger is omnipresent, you can almost grasp it.

The people, who coordinate and distribute the humedica donations on site, are particularly taken aback by the fact that these women are lacking even the most basic items and have to fight every day for survival. „Hunger is omnipresent, you can almost grasp it. Women tell us they are hurting, because they have not eaten for days. Our direct support helps to relieve hunger and provides the women with sanitary products, but most of all our visits have immeasurable human significance. We help to fend off this tangible poverty and sadness in order to give way to perspective and hope“, reports an AMEL employee after taking part in a distribution at Beirut.

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No individual fate

The ordeal of one particular woman, exemplary for the fate of so many, is etched into the memory of a helper: „Even so it was cold outside, she was wearing a summer dress. When she left the house of her employer, she had to leave everything behind, even her papers. In the center we provided her with warm clothing and some food for breakfast, before she explained what had happened. In the house where she used to work, she had not been paid for the last six months and was sexually harassed by the son of her employer. In order to get to Beirut, she had to make debts. Now she and her two children were on the verge of ruin.“

Thanks to humedica and AMEL the women can inquire about the virus in their own language and register for tests. Photo: amel association

Creating perspectives and investing in the future

Thanks to the contribution of humedica and the cooperation with AMEL, the women can now register officially and put their name down for transfer back in their home country. Up to the time of their much longed-for travel home, we provide them in a quick and uncomplicated manner with money for rent and potential legal fees as well as soap, towels, menstruation sanitary articles and face masks. We also offer access to educational material about COVID 19 in their mother tongues, to tests and medical care.

You may decide to look away, but you will never again be able to say that you did not know.

William WilberforceBritish parliamentarian in the 18th century and a leader in the fight against slavery and slave trade.

In order to fight the problem in the long-term, not only urgently needed short-term measures must be taken against the acute symptoms of work migration, its causes must be tackled as well. The push & pull factors, which cause these women to leave their country in order to work in Lebanon, must be levered, the women themselves must be empowered. Therefore, AMEL implements not only the emergency assistance supported by humedica, it also organizes various trainings to qualify the women to widen their coping skills. So that they can return home empowered and better trained.

A start has been made – for this we from humedica thank you from our heart. But still, much remains to be done. Even small amounts of money enable change and show the women in need that they and their misery are not forgotten, that their dignity remains untouchable.

Your support makes our work possible

Stay a part of our work and support us with a donation.

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