Thousands of migrant workers in Lebanon are struggling to secure repatriation flights home as poverty and unemployment soar with the collapse of the local currency.
Lebanon has long been home to a large migrant labour workforce, mostly hailing from Africa and Asia, who come to the tiny Mediterranean country for several years to earn US dollars to send home in remittances. But as the economy has nosedived many Lebanese have been forced to give up their staff.
Three weeks ago employers began to abandon Ethiopian domestic workers outside the embassy. Since then, Ethiopian Airlines has more than doubled the cost of already costly repatriation flights, which now stand at $1,450.
This sum is way out of reach for the average migrant domestic worker in Lebanon who earns around $150 a month. Many have not been paid for several months since the economic crisis started.
More than 100 women have now been dumped outside the Ethiopian embassy to sleep on the streets over the last weeks. Similarly, a group of Nigerian women have spent the last three nights sleeping outside their embassy after being left there by a migrant labour employment agency from whom they sought refuge.
“The boss told us to pack our luggage, that we are going to the embassy and that the following day the embassy would take us to Nigeria,” 30-year-old Hannah Sumni told Middle East Eye.
The “kefala” system under which migrant workers are employed is widely likened to slavery and facilitates rampant physical, sexual and mental abuse.
Lebanon’s economic crisis has seen the local currency lose 75 per cent of its value over the last eight months and over half of the population plunged below the poverty line and the Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation worse.
Whether abandoned by their employers, left unemployed or wanting to leave because they are no longer earning a wage that they can send back to their families, thousands of migrant workers are stranded in Lebanon with no means of returning home.
Even for those who have been given shelter by their embassy or an NGO, there is little work, and therefore no way of making money for food, let alone flights. Shelters and curbsides are becoming communities for those who have been abandoned or have fled abuse.
The Ethiopian embassy paid for a small apartment in a refugee camp for a group of its citizens. A group of Ghanaians, some of who have just fled sexual violence by their employers, share a space on the outskirts of Beirut. It took pleas on a Beirut housing Facebook group to find shelter for 35 Sierra Leonean women.
The true number of migrant workers who are out of work and without stable shelter remains unknown. On Saturday, 211 Ghanaians were given one of the rare repatriation flights since the pandemic began.
“They don’t even pay us after the sexual harassment,” one of the women interviewed at the airport by Ghanaian UTV said.
“[The Lebanese] have love for their animals more than human beings. You don’t even have the right to sit on their couch.”
Since the beginning of May at least 16 Sudanese men have made the dangerous journey across the highly militarised border with Israel in search of better living conditions.
Earlier this month, Lebanese soldiers found the body of a Sudanese man who they believed was heading for Israel. His body was ridden with bullet holes but the precise circumstances of his death remain unclear.
More than 10,000 migrant workers have registered for repatriation flights from their embassies since the pandemic hit but only a few hundred have been lucky enough to have the flights paid for by their embassies.
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