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Plight of Lebanon's Migrant Maids Spurs Coronavirus Repatriation Push

This story was originally published May 27, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Foreign governments are scrambling to organize repatriation flights for thousands of migrant domestic workers stranded in Lebanon due to the coronavirus lockdown following an outcry over their treatment and at least one suicide.

Filipino maid Jenalyn Banares took her own life at the weekend at a shelter run by the Philippine embassy in Beirut, days after rights groups raised concerns about conditions at another embassy shelter housing 26 women waiting to fly home.

Housemaids clean windows in an apartment in Beirut April 2, 2012. Tragic tales of domestic worker abuse in Lebanon are common. | REUTERS/Jamal Saidi
Housemaids clean windows in an apartment in Beirut April 2, 2012. Tragic tales of domestic worker abuse in Lebanon are common. | REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

"Girls are talking about suicide in our inbox. They cannot go on for much longer," said Patricia, co-founder of the migrant protection group This is Lebanon, who uses a pseudonym for her safety.

"They're locked in with their abusers — some of them are being sexually assaulted and all we can say to them is just wait, wait, the airport will open soon," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Thousands of foreign workers in Lebanon, some without legal documentation, are out of work and left stranded by border closures, with many unable to access state services and others subjected to abuse in confinement, according to rights group Amnesty International.

Commercial air traffic is still grounded but some countries are now undertaking emergency flights to repatriate citizens who have been left in dire straits as the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates Lebanon's economic woes.

About a dozen Ethiopians who have been abandoned by their employers have been camping outside their embassy because they have nowhere else to go, said Tsigereda Brihanu from Egna Legna Besidet, an organization supporting domestic workers in Lebanon.

"Those girls don't know anybody, they don't have any friends .... Some of them even come without their luggage."

An Ethiopia-bound flight is expected to depart Beirut carrying 340 nationals on Thursday, said Lebanon's general security directorate spokesman Nabil Hannoun.

The Ethiopian consulate published a post on its Facebook page on May 20 saying the cost of a ticket would be $680 in addition to costs for a 14-day quarantine upon arrival, a hefty price for domestic workers who make as little as $150 per month.

Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said on Sunday that 50 trafficked girls and 19 stranded nationals had been evacuated from Lebanon.

In April, Lebanese authorities questioned a man who tried to sell a Nigerian domestic worker over Facebook. Days later, caseworkers helped another Nigerian woman escape abusive employers after she shared a video of herself with a bloody lip.

Following Banares' death, which it has vowed to investigate, the Philippines embassy in Beirut said all 165 Filipinos staying at its facilities in the city would eventually be flown home.

"All applicants, Ms. Banares included, in our facilities are processed with their eventual repatriation in mind," Charge d'Affaires Ajeet-Victor Panemanglor said in an email.

Lebanon is home to up to 250,000 foreign workers, some working illegally, who are employed under the country's kafala sponsorship system which binds them to one employer.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have blamed the kafala system and the inability to change jobs, which exists in many parts of the Middle East, for the abuse of migrant workers.

Reporting by Ban Barkawi @banbarkawi; Editing by Helen Popper.

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