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Abused Migrant Workers End Up in Prison After Trying to Flee

In Jordan and Lebanon, hundreds of migrant domestic workers are being held in detention. Lawyers and activists say that many of these women wind up in prison after they try to leave abusive employers, who can easily retaliate by falsely accusing them of committing crimes.

Written by Alice Su Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
May day in beirut
Migrant domestic workers demand more rights during a march in Beirut on May 1, 2016. Wissam Fanash Anadolu Agency

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Kidist had been working in Lebanon for less than two months when she was sent to prison. The 27-year-old Ethiopian, whose full name has been withheld for her protection, came to Beirut in December 2016 as a migrant domestic worker. Her employer often came home early while his wife was still at work, and asked Kidist to have sex with him in exchange for money.

“I tell him, ‘I don’t want money, sir, I came to work. I don’t do like this,” Kidist said from behind bars in the Barbar al-Khazen prison. “I told madame, ‘sir is touching my breasts.’ And she said, ‘You wanted this. You are wanting him to do it.’”

One day in January, the husband entered Kidist’s room, grabbed her by the arm and ripped her top open. She ran out crying right as the employer’s wife came home. “She asked me why I was crying and hit me in the face,” Kidist said. The woman brought Kidist to the police station and reported her for theft, for which she was charged. She is awaiting deportation in July.

Kidist’s case is just one among the hundreds of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon who are being held in administrative detention. Many are detained simply for running away, for holding irregular papers or for false accusations of crime. The women come to the Middle East from developing countries such as Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Kenya and Sri Lanka to work and support their families back home, but they enter labor systems rife with exploitation, trafficking and imprisonment – even in the case of victims of abuse.

The imprisonment of runaway domestic workers is linked to a migrant labor system in the region based on “kefala,” or sponsorship, which binds migrant domestic workers’ rights to work and live in the country entirely to their employers. This system has led to well-documented abuses across the Gulf states, but it also affects women who seek work further north, in Lebanon and in Jordan.

Under kefala, workers cannot change jobs without an agreement from their employer, even if they are suffering from abuse. Workers might complain to the agencies that matched them with their employers, to their embassies or to Lebanese authorities, but migrant domestic workers have few rights since they are excluded from Lebanese labor protections.

The final resort for many is often to run away, but that immediately renders the women vulnerable to arrest. Migrant domestic workers’ contracts stipulate that they must live with their Lebanese employer. Legally, leaving the employers’ home is a breach of the migrant’s work contract, so running away constitutes a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment. Lebanon’s general security directorate wrote in an email that as of mid-April, there were 337 migrant domestic workers in Lebanese prisons. Many of them were imprisoned for running away.

“Kefala is legal slavery,” says Hasna Abdul Reda, a lawyer with the Lebanese Center for Human Rights who defends migrant domestic workers in court. Many of the women she meets in prison say they’ve been jailed under fabricated accusations of theft, while others are often being punished for trying to escape mistreatment.

“The heart of the sponsorship system, why it’s problematic, is because of imbalance of power between the two parties who signed a contract,” Zeina Mezher, the International Labor Organization’s national project coordinator in Lebanon, explains. “The employer can decide to terminate a contract whenever they want, while the worker can’t do anything about violations.”

Activists and human rights groups have advocated for the abolishment of this system for years, and in 2015, a domestic workers’ union was formed to lobby for better rights. Yet the Ministry of Labor has not recognized the union, and nothing has changed at the policy level. Meanwhile, the judicial process for a migrant worker’s case takes about three years, Abdul Reda says, while the worker stays in jail or, at best, a women’s shelter.

Even those who manage to obtain a lawyer through NGOs or the union still rarely gain access to justice, Human Rights Watch researcher Bassam Khawaja says. Judges almost always give “extremely lenient” sentences, even to employers who are prosecuted and convicted of serious crimes against migrant employees.

Jordan, in contrast to Lebanon, is attempting to formalize the migrant domestic labor system to reduce trafficking and abuse. There is an active antitrafficking unit within the Jordanian police, and the Ministry of Labor has shut down recruiting agencies for misconduct.

Migrant domestic workers are also included in the Jordanian labor law, in contrast to Lebanon, where they have no legal protection at all. Yet the same problem of imprisoning runaway domestic workers exists, and those in jail are often victims of abuse or trafficking.

Thirty-six-year-old Evangeline left the Philippines in 2015 to work for a family in Jordan. She worked every day from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. and slept in a storage room next to the washing machine. She was paid regularly for the first year, she said, but her employer started withholding her salary toward the end of 2016.

“I have a son who needed a heart operation in the Philippines, so I was asking for my salary,” Evangeline said from inside the Juweida women’s prison. Instead of paying Evangeline, her employer beat her, poured burning water on her hands and twice put her head in the toilet. Evangeline tried to call her agency, but they didn’t pick up, she said. In December 2016, Evangeline attempted to call the Philippine embassy for help. When her “madam” found out, she called the police, accusing Evangeline of theft.

Another detainee in the women’s prison is M., whose full name has been withheld for her protection. The 25-year-old left Ethiopia in 2011 at age 19 to go work in Dubai. Three months in, her madam told her that they were going to the U.S., but then took M. on a plane to Amman without legal papers. Once in Jordan, M. worked as a maid without pay, without access to a phone, and without a day off for five years. “I had no papers, no embassy, no agency, no income,” she said.

M. began a relationship with the Egyptian doorman downstairs, also a migrant worker, and eventually became pregnant. When her “madam” found out, she reported M. for adultery. The trafficked maid found herself in prison, pregnant, without any way of seeking help.

By chance, a staff member of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) found her and referred her case to the Jordanian counter-trafficking unit. By then she had been in prison for 10 months and given birth to her daughter while the father had been deported to Egypt. The IOM is trying to obtain the child’s citizenship papers from the Ethiopian embassy in Egypt, so Jordan can deport the mother and child and reunite them with the father.

“Usually they do take trafficking victims out immediately and put them in a shelter,” said Ruba al-Aboushi, IOM Jordan’s counter-trafficking officer. M.’s case is more complicated. While the Jordanian counter-trafficking unit is paying her visa overstay fines, she remains in prison because of the adultery charges.

The key to protecting migrant domestic workers in these situations is systematic policy reform, said lawyers and activists in both Jordan and Lebanon, to replace the sponsorship system with one where migrant workers are able to leave their employers without undergoing imprisonment and deportation.

Some countries have tried to stop their citizens from falling prey to abuse as domestic workers by simply banning them from working in offending countries. But Mezher, in Lebanon, says that this method doesn’t work due to a lack of comprehensive implementation, which just heightens the risk of trafficking and abuse. Ethiopia, for example, banned its citizens from seeking work in the Middle East in 2013. But since then, the number of Ethiopian migrant workers has only increased across the region, with a concurrent rise in irregular migration, trafficking and exploitation.

For Mezher, the solution is clear.

“There is a business case to be made that everyone will continue to benefit if this system is regulated,” Mezher says. “It doesn’t have to be exploitative for it to be beneficial.”

This is the first in a two-part series on vulnerable migrant domestic workers in the Middle East.

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