Precarious migrant motherhood in Lebanon

Ethiopian migrant domestic workers who give birth to children in Lebanon are caught in a trap between the struggle to bring up a child with no legal status, and the difficulty of exiting the country.

Bina Fernandez
11 January 2017

Beirut. Photo: WikicommonsRubka* is an Ethiopian migrant worker in Lebanon who is a live-in domestic worker for Tete Mona, an elderly Lebanese woman. Rubka also manages a ‘garderie’ for Tete Mona – an unregistered daycare where around 7 Ethiopian migrant women pay Tete Mona USD100 a month for daycare for their children aged between 1 and 6 years. The mothers all live and work locally, and drop their children off in the morning and pick them up as soon as they have finished work. The children are fed their lunch, and spend most of the day watching children’s TV and/or playing with each other in the small space.

It is primarily Rubka who looks after all the children – so she does domestic work and childcare; but this arrangement works for her too, as it allows her to also look after her three-year old son, Yafit (which she would not have been able to do in a ‘regular’ contract job as a domestic worker). Recent changes to laws affecting migrant workers in Lebanon combine racial and gender biases to put women like Rubka and their children in extremely precarious positions. 

Yafit’s father is a Syrian man with whom Rubka had a relationship. Although this man is named as the father on the birth certificate, he was married with other children and soon after Yafit’s birth, he left the country. Yafit is a lively boy whose light-skin and long curly hair make him look Arab, rather than Ethiopian. This resulted in a harrowing encounter with the police. Yafit explains, ‘Once when I was with him on the street, when he was very young, the police stopped me and asked ‘Whose baby is this?’. “He’s mine.” “No, he’s not.” We started to argue. “Where is the paper to prove that you’re the mother?” “What is this paper that you want me to bring?” “So you’re roaming around without papers with someone else’s child? How do we know that you’ve not stolen him?”

It was only when the police phoned Rubka’s employer who vouched for her that she and Yafit were released. After that, she struggled for two years to get a copy of his birth certificate from the hospital, and to register his birth. While she was able to obtain a copy of his birth certificate, she had difficulties registering his birth, because she was asked for a marriage certificate, which she did not have. Without this registration, and given her irregular status, she understands that she will not be able to get Yafit into school, even with Tete Mona’s support.

Rubka therefore decided to try to take Yafit and return to Ethiopia; the only course of action she felt open to her was to pay a police a bribe of USD250 to be taken into detention, then deported. She wanted to take Yafit with her to prison, as she feared being separated from him and being deported without him, but she was unsure of whether she would be allowed to, and whether he would be able to survive the gruelling conditions of the detention centre.

Two weeks later, I heard that Rubka was in the detention centre. Yafit was staying with Tete Mona, who now had another Ethiopian migrant domestic worker (MDW) working for her and the daycare. However, Rubka could be in detention for a while before she can return to Ethiopia with Yafit, as the time it will take to process her case is entirely unpredictable, and contingent on the support of the Ethiopian Embassy in Lebanon. She is hoping that the Ethiopian Embassy will accept her claim that Yafit’s father has left the country, and support laissez passer papers for Yafit, so that he can leave with her once her deportation orders come through.

Common tales of precarity

Rubka’s story as a migrant mother in Lebanon is similar to that of many other Ethiopian migrant domestic workers (MDWs) who bear children while they are in Lebanon. Lebanon has been a destination for MDWs since the 1980s, and while initially Sri Lankan women were numerically dominant (to the extent that the word ‘Srilanki’ became almost synonymous with domestic worker), by 2015, there were 73,098 Ethiopian women who constituted 47% of the 154,757 documented MDWs according to the Ministry of Labor, Lebanon.

The majority of Ethiopian MDWs are young, unmarried women in the sexually active and reproductive age group of 18-30 (unlike MDWs from Asia who often tend to be already married with children before they migrate). There is therefore a greater likelihood of Ethiopian women forming relationships and having children.

Officially, according to the terms of the Unified Contract signed by MDWs, they are not allowed to marry, become pregnant or have children while in Lebanon, yet there is a sizeable population of women migrants with children who often have ambiguous legal status. According to a representative of Insan Association, an estimated 15% of the MDW population have children in Lebanon. The numbers could therefore range between 20,000 and 30,000. The majority of MDW mothers with children in Lebanon have irregular migrant status, which may pre-date their pregnancy, or in some cases, have been propelled by it. Although MDWs are not allowed to register a civil marriage, some couples enter into a religious marriage (usually officiated by an Islamic Sheikh).

The Lebanese government’s restrictions on MDWs' rights to legally marry and have children has the unintended counter-effect of propelling these women and their children into irregular status and precarious single motherhood. Aida and Emebet are two such mothers who started out on regular contracts as domestic workers. They met and married Sudanese men, but after a few years Aida’s husband was deported and Emebet’s husband died, after which their residence statuses lapsed into irregularity. They live together with their three daughters, and both work part-time jobs as domestic workers, taking turns looking after the children. As Aida describes: ‘We help each other, pay the rent, and look after our children – in the morning I take them to school, she brings them back in the afternoon. We have a programme. Helping each other, we live together.

They live a precarious life, with incomes that are barely enough to meet the costs of rent, school fees, and keeping themselves and the girls fed and clothed. They face the constant risks of being arrested, held in detention and deported.

Degrees of precarity

The likelihood of single motherhood and the degree of precarity Ethiopian migrant mothers face depends to a great extent on the nationality, marital and migrant status of the men with whom the women have relationships, with four observable trends.

First, a very small number of Ethiopian women who have married Lebanese men, become Lebanese citizens and are consequently the most secure.

Second, more commonly, Ethiopian women marry and have children with Sudanese men living and working in Lebanon. Some of these Sudanese men have been successful in their applications to register as asylum seekers with UNHCR; if married to the Ethiopian woman, she and her children are considered his dependents and they are eligible as a family for eventual resettlement in a third country through the UNHCR.

Third, some migrant worker couples have managed to ‘buy’ their sponsorship papers and regularize their residence status as ‘freelancers’ (although they are technically infracting the law). This is what the husbands of Aida and Emebet did, at least initially. Until 2014, in cases where the father was a documented migrant worker and the couple had marriage documents, their children could be registered for residence permits with the General Directorate of the General Security (GDGS), the administrative body that controls immigration in Lebanon. The renewal of residency permits of children below 4 years old was permitted without cost and after 4 years, the extension of the residency permit was dependent on school enrollment.

Fourth, and most precarious, are women like Rubka who have entered into relationships with men of different nationalities (Syrian, Egyptian or Sudanese) who are irregular migrants themselves and/or are unwilling to marry them. The children of such relationships often have ambiguous legal status if their father refuses to acknowledge them. The Ethiopian government requires documentation of paternity to register the child as Ethiopian, and requires the permission of the father in order to allow the child to travel out of Lebanon on laissez passer papers. For many such women, the only form of documentation of their child’s existence is a baptism certificate issued by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Lebanon.

The legal status of children is therefore contingent on the migration status of their parents.

Registering births

Migrants in Lebanon are at a disadvantage in registering their children with authorities. A survey by Insan Association found that while 0% of Lebanese children are not registered, 10% of children of documented migrants and 63% of children of undocumented migrants are not registered. Migrant workers who have children born in Lebanon and manage to keep them in the country (particularly those that are undocumented) have very few alternatives in terms of childcare since they have neither the family networks nor the resources to arrange for their care needs. Migrant mothers in Lebanon usually cannot afford better quality childcare services given their low salaries. Further, as the Insan survey showed, 56.7% of children of documented migrants and 55.2% of children of undocumented migrants do not attend school. This stands in contrast to Lebanese children, (100%) of whom are reported to be attending school.

In 2014, in a covert attempt to control what was seen as a burgeoning problem, the GDGS began obstructing the renewal of residence permits of children of migrant workers. Although GDGS did not make public any policy directive regarding non-renewal, civil society organizations noticed that this was systematically happening even when both parents were regular migrants working in Lebanon and had not had previous problems registering their children. Further, in October, 2014 GDGS also attempted to disallow any relationships engaged in by MDWS by requiring employers to ensure that no migrant worker under their sponsorship marries any person whether foreign or Lebanese while on Lebanese territories (GDGS Public Notice No. 1778 dated 10/10/2014). The Ministry of Justice overturned this latter directive in July 2015 due to lobbying pressure from civil society stakeholders and the media.

Although the advocacy of Lebanese civil society actors prevented the deterioration of the already precarious situation of migrant mothers and their children in Lebanon, the situation continues to violate the rights of migrant children under the Child Rights Convention (which Lebanon has ratified), many of whom are, in effect, stateless, and without access to education. Migrant women workers and their children are thus the victims of racist and gender biased immigration rules, forced into informal and dangerous survival strategies and deeper marginality.


*All names have been changed in this article to protect anonymity. 

This article is based on research conducted by the author with Ethiopian women migrant workers in Lebanon between June and September 2016.

The research was presented at 'Families on the Move', a conference on migration, gender and family relations, co-organized by UN Women and New York UniversitySchool of Professional StudiesCenter for Global Affairs, to inform UN Women’s upcoming flagship report Progress of the World’s Women: ‘Families in a Changing World’. 


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