In-depth Analysis: Amidst fear of #COVID19 Ethiopian domestic workers coerced into making heavy payments to flee Lebanon

Ethiopian domestic workers cramped inside Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut waiting to depart to Addis Abeba. Their flights were scheduled on March 18 and 19/2020 (Image provided to Addis Standard by one of the travelers)

Zecharias Zelalem

Addis Abeba, March 26/2020 – Ethiopians who, for the most part, are women employed by Lebanese homeowners as domestic workers, have been pleading for evacuation to Ethiopia since Lebanon’s economic meltdown had left many of them out of jobs. The scarcity of employment has left little incentive for many of them to remain in Lebanon. But the alarming spread of COVID-19 which affected hundreds of people in Lebanon has heightened their desire to leave as quickly as possible.

Addis Standard has received several messages from many Ethiopian domestic workers that as of recent days the demand to be evacuated has become more pressing than any other time.

Since December, the Ethiopian consulate has been asking its undocumented migrants seeking to be evacuated to pay a sum of US$550. That’s around five months worth of salary for many domestic workers. The consulate’s insistence that the payments be made in US dollars, despite Lebanon’s dire shortage of foreign currency, has only added to the strain of those seeking to escape the country’s uncertainty. Regardless, left with no alternatives, many women have gone ahead and registered. The consulate claims that it has repatriated 1163 Ethiopian citizens from Lebanon this way.

But on March 4th, the Lebanese government agreed to implement a cost-effective process to allow migrants with no residency papers to return to their home countries. This would ease things as the fines they’d normally be forced to pay for their undocumented stays would be reduced considerably. They would also be allowed to pay in Lebanese pounds, avoiding the enforcement placed by the Ethiopian consulate of searching for hard-to-find US dollar bills.

Despite the Lebanese government’s decision, however, the Ethiopian consulate decided against notifying its undocumented citizens of the change and instead urged Ethiopians to continue registering via its own program. Worried about the spread of COVID-19 and unaware of the Lebanese government’s new position, the undocumented and desperate Ethiopian domestic workers continued to pay the US$550 demanded of them by Ethiopian diplomats, many of them told Addis Standard. Ethiopia’s acting ambassador to Lebanon and head of the consulate Aklilu Tatere Wube, refused to respond to questions from Addis Standard seeking clarification.

Harsh demands

Many of the undocumented Ethiopian maids seeking to leave Lebanon have worked for as little as US$150 per month. Previously, they had to pay fines up to US$200 per year for staying undocumented in addition to purchasing a one-way air tickets in order to be allowed to leave. For women who have lived and worked in Lebanon for years, this could amount to thousands of dollars. As many migrant workers have recently lost their jobs or remain enslaved by their employers, accumulating the funds isn’t easy. According to a CNN report, Ethiopian migrants desperate to leave have even resorted to getting themselves arrested with the hopes of being deported.

Rahwa, a domestic worker who left Lebanon earlier this year, explained this to Addis Standard. Despite regularly sending remittances to her family in Ethiopia during her three years in Lebanon, she needed money to be sent the other way around when it became time to leave.

“I lost my job and had no money since I was unemployed for almost three months,” said Rahwa who herself was undocumented for much of her stay in Lebanon, said. “I had to borrow money from my uncles. I could barely afford to eat, let alone buy an air ticket.”

Rahwa became an undocumented migrant the moment she decided to flee her abusive employer. Under Lebanon’s discriminatory kafala system, her legal right to stay in the country is immediately revoked if she leaves her employer without permission. Migrant workers are excluded from the Lebanese labor law, and as such aren’t protected in any shape way or form if their employers withhold salary, assault them or force them to work without breaks. The large number of undocumented migrants is due in large part to the culture of abusing domestic workers being commonplace in Lebanon. Workers escape abusive homes and then risk being jailed if caught by police. This likens their situation to that of a captive, forced to work under unbearable conditions at the risk of losing their legal status. Tens of thousands of women are believed to be residing in the country illegally after having fled abusive working conditions.

Ethiopians at Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut prepare to board the last flights to Ethiopia before the airport’s closure (Image: Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut)

The Embassy of the Philippines has been evacuating its undocumented citizens completely free of charge, covering their airfares and all immigration related fines. The Ethiopian consulate has thus far refrained from budging on its demands for $550 US.

Many Ethiopians considered the decision made by the Lebanese government on March 4th as a Godsend. Instead of paying $200 US for every year spent in Lebanon without residency papers, a migrant will be asked to make a single payment of 300,000 LBP and be cleared to leave, no matter how long she/he has lived in the country. 300,000 LBP is the equivalent of some US$115 in the current exchange rate and makes a significant difference for those earning less than $2000 US annually.

The agreement came after months of negotiations between Lebanese government representatives and a coalition of diplomats from various embassies, NGOs and migrants’ rights groups. Although the coalition didn’t get the government to drop all immigration fines as they’d initially hoped for, it is still a significant load off the shoulders of the lowest paid sector of Lebanese society.

The concession by the Lebanese government is seen as a major development affecting countless Ethiopians in the country. But the Ethiopian consulate refused to announce the news and many Ethiopians, who rely solely on the Ethiopian consulate’s official Facebook page for such updates haven’t been notified. Instead, perhaps aware that the policy would likely spell an end to Ethiopians forking over the astronomical $550 US sum, the consulate put out an ambiguous statement on March 5th, announcing that registrations would come to an end by March 11th. The statement gave a stern notification for Ethiopians to register before or on March 11. An accurate English translation of the Amharic language post reads as follows:

“The Ethiopian consulate, which for months since its discussions with Lebanese immigration officials, has been working nonstop to register undocumented Ethiopians who seek to be repatriated. We are now planning a seventh round of registrations, and we’d like to inform all that there will be no registrations after March 11th.”

Under the posting, Ethiopians in the comment section lashed at the consulate’s insistence that repatriation could only be paid for in US dollars. Others openly wondered if the consulate planned on abandoning all those who failed to come forward with the $550 US before the March 11th deadline. “Are you saying that after Wednesday you won’t be registering people,” one commentator asked. “Whoever can afford the 550$ probably can afford a private plane!” said another Ethiopian. The notice however had the desired effect, as many rushed to fulfill the required payment.

“I saw the [consulate’s] Facebook post and got scared,” one woman who was among those who rushed to the consulate told Addis Standard. “I didn’t want to be stuck there, especially now with the spread of COVID-19. So I borrowed the money. But I know other girls who resorted to stealing. We are this desperate.” The woman, who requested anonymity, made it quite clear that the fear of the pandemic was what pushed her to act. “I didn’t want to borrow the money,” she explains. “But I saw more and more people in face masks and it scared me. I don’t know how I will pay off the debt.”

When asked if she was aware of the Lebanese government being close to enacting a policy that would have allowed her to leave for far less than the 550$ the consulate asked her, she said she had heard of it but was not sure about it. “Yes there was a Lebanese media report about it. I also heard people talking about it. But since the consulate made no mention of it, I started to doubt if it was true. I didn’t want to take any chances.”

The belief that Ethiopians would now be permanently stranded in Lebanon, compounded by the panic surrounding the spread of coronavirus, likely convinced many others to scavenge the money by any means and quickly register to leave. The Ethiopian consulate in Beirut refuses to clarify why it chose not to make the news of the March 4th agreement available to the Ethiopian community. It remains unclear why the consulate is insistent on being paid in US dollars either when both Lebanese immigration officials and even the Beirut based Ethiopian Airlines office were accepting payments in Lebanese pounds.

Behind the March 4th agreement, no Ethiopian representatives

Kafa, Arabic for “enough,” is the name of the Lebanese women’s rights organization which initiated contact with the Lebanon government. Discussions commenced and the organization initially requested the government to announce a grace period permitting all migrants who wanted to leave Lebanon do so without paying fines. “Kafa called for an emergency meeting with the government,” the organization announced via its Facebook page. “The meeting would be attended by representatives of diplomatic missions and organizations working on migrant domestic worker issues.”

In late November last year, Lebanese General Security officials agreed to discuss the matter in depth. The crucial meeting in Beirut, organized by Kafa, was attended by diplomatic staff representing impacted nationals including those of Nigeria, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The glaring omission here, Ethiopia.

According to figures put out by Amnesty International back in 2018, Ethiopians make up nearly 80% of the total number of domestic workers in Lebanon. Exactly why the Ethiopian consulate deemed it unnecessary to attend when the vast majority of women affected are Ethiopians, is unclear.

Lebanese General Security officials meeting with representatives of women’s organizations and diplomats of various countries back in November to discuss a proposed amnesty for undocumented migrants stranded in Lebanon. Ethiopian diplomats were not present despite being invited to attend (Image: Kafa)

The Kafa organization leading the proceedings had invited Ethiopian diplomats to take part in the discussions. In a recent interview on a domestic worker run talk show on local media outlet Abbay Media, a Kafa staffer stated that the Ethiopian consulate declined the offer to attend. “We definitely invited the Ethiopian consulate because Ethiopians are the majority (in Lebanon),” she said. “They apologized and stated that they couldn’t attend as something urgent had come up.”

Addis Standard has learnt that Kafa had contacted the consulate’s First Secretary, Samson Abebe Telila. Samson has not yet responded to e-mail questions from Addis Standard on what could possibly be more urgent than direct negotiations which could have made the difference between Ethiopian migrants returning home or remaining stranded.

It is also not clear if the First Secretary notified his colleagues at the consulate. An earlier investigative report by Addis Standard revealed Samson to be the man behind the consulate’s inaction and coverup of the death of 19 year old Ethiopian domestic worker Tigist Belay last year. At the time, Samson told the magazine that pursuing justice in the case of murdered Ethiopians wasn’t part of his job.

Despite the absence of Ethiopian diplomats, however, the Ethiopian community wasn’t without a representative. Members of two Lebanon based Ethiopian migrants’ rights organizations, Meswat and Egna Legna Besidet were both present. “We still have a long way to go in terms of the overall rights of migrant workers in Lebanon,” Rahel Zegeye of the Meswat group said. “But the Lebanese government’s willingness to negotiate is a positive sign.”

Both Ethiopian community groups were quick to notify their followers via their Facebook pages. Egna Legna Besidet and Meswat organizations published the news report and made it known that those seeking to escape Lebanon would have it much easier. But it’s evident that the Ethiopian consulate’s notice posted on its Facebook page was enough to instill doubt in the minds of many domestic workers.

Portion of a document highlighting crucial agenda points of the November 28th meeting. Listed are those who were in attendance. Notable absentees were that of Ethiopia’s consular staff.

Costs now deducted by half

The lack of urgency by Ethiopian diplomats was apparently noticed by those of other states that were perplexed at the absence of consular staff from the largest community of domestic workers in Lebanon. But it didn’t hinder some from reaching an agreement with Lebanese General Security officials. For Kafa and allied organizations, the March 4th agreement was a breakthrough. The new agreement hasn’t yet been implemented, but all indications pointed to only formalities remaining before it is inked. The only other roadblock appears to be Lebanon’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus instigated state of emergency.

Due to the dwindling value of Lebanon’s currency, 300,000 LBP fetches as little as US$115 in the black market. For stranded migrants it is a game-changer. With Ethiopian Airlines reducing the price of one-way airfare from Beirut to Addis Abeba to an average of US$145 payable in Lebanese currency, undocumented Ethiopians could be able to cover all costs for their return home with a total of about US$260 payable in Lebanese currency. That is less than half of what the Ethiopian consulate has been asking and, more importantly, not in US dollars, which Lebanese banks have run out of.

Among diplomats who reacted to the news is Ambassador Abdul Moetab Sarkar of Bangladesh. He described the new agreement to the Lebanese Daily Star as a “win win for both sides.” Lebanese General Security’s Colonel Tarek Dakya also told the same newspaper that “it is simply us doing our bit to address the issue.”

What is worse, even after paying US$550, Ethiopian domestic workers can expect to wait up to four months before boarding a plane. None of those who rushed their registrations between March 5th and March 11th are in Ethiopia as of the publication of this news. This is despite being told that it was now or never.

Lebanon had confirmed its first case of the coronavirus on February 21st and reports circulated that Lebanon was due for an upsurge in cases. This prompted many Ethiopians to come forward and pay the money.

Ethiopia’s acting ambassador to Lebanon, Aklilu Tatere Wube. The ambassador refused to address questions by Addis Standard as to why his office refused to publicize news of the Lebanon government’s agreement to deduct a portion of fines demanded for undocumented migrants seeking to leave Lebanon

Life in Lebanon under quarantine

Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport will be closed until March 29th, as part of efforts to slow COVID -19 spread in Lebanon, where more than 300 confirmed cases have been reported. Ethiopian migrants, including those who recently registered for departure, remain confined to homes. Some took to social media to express their fears that they might have one of many COVID-19 symptoms. “I haven’t been outside in a month, but I’ve had a sore throat for three days now. I’m hoping it’s just a cold,” a Facebook user posted on one of several Facebook forums used by Ethiopians in Lebanon.

Abebech 18, shared anecdotes of life under quarantine in Beirut. “My madame (employer) used to go to work and leave me at the home. Now she is stuck with me at home and it’s very stressful for me since she is always agitated. I want to leave but I have nowhere to go and I’m afraid of catching the virus.” But she remains hopeful of paying the airfare for an older sister who lives undocumented in Lebanon. “My sister’s boss used to beat her, so she ran away. I’m happy that the Lebanese government will soon allow us to pay our fines in lira (Lebanese pounds). God willing, they will contain the virus and she’ll soon be back in Ethiopia. But there are many more stuck here. I wish the government would do something to help them.”

Activists, not diplomats, the real “ambassadors” in Lebanon

The United Nations subordinate International Labor Organization (ILO) has organized a two day conference on March 11 and 12 to discuss on abolishing the kafala system. The importance of the conference was highlighted by the presence of Lebanon’s new Labor Minister Lamia Yammine. Amnesty International urged the Lebanese government to use the consultation as a platform for finally put in place a system that protects the rights of migrant workers.

The ILO are apparently confident that positive change is on the horizons. So are the Ethiopians who participated at the event and delivered speeches. Representatives of the Ethiopian consulate, however, were nowhere to be seen. Other countries’ embassy and consular staff such as from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Ghana were present.

“There were plenty of lawyers, activists and officials with high standing present,” said Tsigereda Birhanu, of the Egna Legna Besidet organization. “I am optimistic with the way things are playing out. Speaking out on behalf of the oppressed was important and I’m hoping that this contributed to there being the sort of reform we all need.”

Ethiopians in Lebanon appear to be only able to rely on activists to speak out on their behalf. Their government representatives have been, time and again, lacking when it comes to action.

Last February, Meseret Mandefero, also a member of the Egna Legna Besidet organization traveled all the way from Beirut to Abu Dhabi, where she was given the opportunity to address Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who was on a state visit to the Emirates. She pleaded with him to evacuate her fellow nationals, languishing in the uncertainty of revolution era Lebanon. “There are no jobs and people are running out of money,” she said.

Meseret Mandefero of the Egna Legna Besidet organization speaking to the Ethiopian Prime Minister (Image: EBC/screenshot)

However, Meseret’s pleas have clearly fallen on deaf ears so far. It is far from the first time Ethiopian diplomats in Beirut have been called out for their inaction. But their refusal to carry out their duties may remain etched in the memory of Lebanon’s Ethiopian community for some time to come. AS

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