North Africa, West Asia

Ethiopian workers in Lebanon challenge their consulate: “What are you here for?”

The Ethiopian consulate is either absent or complicit in the struggle against the kafala system in Lebanon.

Yazan al-Saadi
11 October 2019
Small shelter, run by the Ethiopian community, inside the Ethiopian consulate in Lebanon.
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Picture from the open letter published online

A recently published open letter to the Ethiopian government drafted by a collective of Ethiopian communities and supported by several NGOs in Lebanon sheds light on the negative role of the Ethiopian consulate in the struggle against the abusive sponsorship system (known as “kafala”) in the country.

In its opening paragraph the letter states: “The Ethiopian consulate has failed to support and defend these women for over a decade, in terms of individual cases or strong advocacy with the Lebanese government.”

The letter provides various examples of the consulate’s failure over time, such as siding with Lebanese employers against Ethiopian workers, to abusive treatment by consulate staff towards Ethiopians who seek help, as well as the little resources allocated to protect and serve Ethiopian citizens in their respective cases. It also makes it clear that there is no political will within the consulate to change its own structural failures.

“The action – and inaction – of the Ethiopian consulate in Lebanon over the last 10 years shows that they are unreliable, unresponsive to women in crisis, and often perpetuate further harm on Ethiopians seeking help,” it added.

One major example highlighted in the letter is the shelter established within the Ethiopian consulate but run and funded by the Ethiopian community in Lebanon. The letter notes that the shelter, composed of only two rooms of 3 by 3.5 meters, can hold only 30 women but hosts between 50 to 130 women, all sleeping on shared mattresses, with no activities, no legal representation, and no access to counselors or social workers. Moreover, the women are often left locked inside, akin to a prison with little visitation rights.

Additionally, two major cases are highlighted in the letter as premium examples of the consulate’s failure. The first is the death of Alem Dechasa in 2012 – a mother of two children, who was viciously beaten in front of the consulate, with no intervention from the consulate, and dragged away by men from a recruitment agency to a psychiatric hospital where she committed suicide three days after the incident.

The second case is that of Lembibo, a 26-year old woman who was allegedly raped by her employer and found drowned in the swimming pool at the home of her recruitment agent in May 2018 days after her baby had died a few hours after birth. Despite calls for an investigation by the Ethiopian community and Lebanese NGOs, the consulate did not provide any legal support or conduct a proper investigation.

The letter bluntly asks, “What is the real mandate of the consulate staff? What are they here to do? Who are they here to serve?” It also claims that the Ethiopian consulate is complicit in the abuses in Lebanon.

Better than most?

The questions asked by the letter to the Ethiopian consulate are crucial ones.

According to the official numbers provided by the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, there are around 270,000 migrant workers in Lebanon, with more than half being Ethiopian citizens, almost all of whom are migrant domestic workers. At least another 100,000 Ethiopian workers are in Lebanon, uncounted, since they are deemed outside of the legal regime governed by the kafala system, trapped in a form of legal purgatory with no access to legal residency or their passports.

The nature of kafala is widely known and has been reported on. It is estimated that almost two to four domestic workers die per week in Lebanon, an increase from the average of one death per week 10 years ago. Most of the coverage, understandably, highlights the negative role of the Lebanese authorities, recruitment agencies, and Lebanese employers in facilitating and perpetuating this stark state of affairs.

Yet, the role of the Ethiopian consulate, one that is much less covered, does have an impact.

From a basic level, a consulate -- a lesser form of an embassy -- is one of the most important forms of protection for citizens living in a foreign country. In the context of Lebanon, in which hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians reside and face hardship, the consulate could potentially play a meaningful role in the struggle to overcome the sponsorship system through its services, bilateral negotiations with the Lebanese authorities, and advocacy measures.

This is, it seems, where a contention lies.

According to two Lebanese NGOs, KAFA and the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), their experience working with the Ethiopian consulate was more or less positive.

“We work with the Embassy through our lawyer or advocacy and protection team. It's good and much better than other consulates and embassies [sic]. They respond to cases referred to them and they provide support as much as they can and are capable of. They always provide translation for our lawyers in court when needed to represent an Ethiopian accused. They provide us with all information needed for our legal representation, however we still believe that their intervention and support is limited due to their financial capacities and human resources. But even with these limited resources they were always supportive and responsive when informed about any kind of violation.”

This is what Josiane Noun, program coordinator, for the Lebanese Center for Human Rights wrote in an email response to OpenDemocracy.

A similar outlook was shared by Ghina Al Andary, an outreach and case worker for KAFA's task force tackling issues related to domestic workers.

“I don’t think the consulates are comparable with the Lebanese institutions since the two are very different in terms of the role they play and services they provide. In comparison to other consulates/ embassies, they have more financial and human resources, or have been in Lebanon for a longer while, so they’re able to better assist their nationals. On the other hand there are many Ethiopians in Lebanon and therefore they require a lot of assistance from the consulate therefore more resources are needed to meet their needs. Yet they are still more efficient than other honorary consulates who are much less able to contribute to the assistance of the MDWs [Migrant domestic workers],” she responded in an email to OpenDemocracy.

“Surely with the Ethiopians constituting the highest percentage of this working force, and the consulate’s lack of resources, they might have fallen short in some areas,” Al Andary wrote, “In our experience, nothing has been done to intentionally obstruct or prevent the assistance of someone. However, sometimes there might be a delay in the process which might be a bit lengthy.”

Side deals and complicity

For the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM),a grassroots movement more intimately linked with migrant communities, the assessment is much more negative and blunt towards the consulate.

“Consulates should be, at minimum, actively involved in reforming the [kafala] system to reduce abuses on their citizens, but it seems like they are passing the buck,” a spokesperson for ARM said to OpenDemocracy during an interview.

“We've recorded what amounts to 'side deals' between the consulate staff and employers when it comes to a case, we're noticing what could be a 'cover-up' of the amounts of deaths in Lebanon, we've seen major delays in tackling urgent files in which a person in a dire situation waits months for a resolution, and we've seen that the Ethiopian consulate has passed on a lot of responsibilities and the burden on the Ethiopian community – the shelter is an example of that.”

She added, “It seems like Ethiopians are treated less as citizens and more as part of an overall business and investment deal between the consulate and the various agencies in Lebanon.”

ARM's assessment of the Ethiopian consulate resonates with a number of Ethiopian activists.

“I've been in Lebanon for 8 years now, and I started interacting with the consulate around 6 years ago when I got involved in activism related to Ethiopians in Lebanon,” said S. T., an Ethiopian citizen and activist residing in Lebanon.

“We started visiting Ethiopians in hospitals, in homes, in prisons, and we went back to the consulate to ask why they weren't doing more and their answers weren't satisfactory,” he said. “We heard and experienced a lot of problems inside the consulate, in which staff were harsh with people, insulting people who came for help, or treated them very badly.”

According to S. B., prior to the successful formation of his community group, other attempts at forming groups to spotlight abuses and fight for Ethiopian rights in Lebanon were heavily restricted by the consulate: “Many groups before us came up and quickly vanished after some pressures from the consulate, but we were able to continue.”

Despite their endurance, there were severe clashes with the consulate.“It seems that we were raising too much spotlight on these abuses and what the consulate wasn't doing, and it seemed like the consulate was afraid,” he added. “We've had cases in which myself and others were threatened by the consulate, or the consulate had contacted the Lebanese authorities under the excuse that we were trafficking women which led to our temporary arrest.”

“This experience only makes me angry and just made me double my effort to do something for Ethiopian citizens, S. B. mused, “I don't do this for money. I am trying to make something here to help my community. People are crying, shouting, and dying for help. How can I leave or stop?”

Unfit for the job?

H. M., an Ethiopian woman living in Beirut since 2011 and used to be a domestic worker prior to becoming an activist, agrees with S. B.: “There is no one to protect us, we don't know what our rights are, we don't know the process. We don't even know what the consulate actually does. We have no information. And when we ask for our rights in the consulate, they often tell us we are wrong to ask for such things, and we are threatened constantly with prison or deportation or something else.”

“A consulate is supposed to, first and foremost, stand on our side or help us,” she said, “Yes, there are laws in Lebanon that are restrictive, and yes there are limited resources, but that cannot and does not justify why the consulate is so insensitive, sluggish, and simply not caring for us. It seems that the consulate is only here for commercial and investment interests, and ignores our lives. They ignore those who are crying blood and are waiting for some kind of justice.”

Sara, an organizer for This Is Lebanon, an advocacy Facebook page run in Canada that has become a platform to name and shame abusers in Lebanon, was equally as dire in her perspective of the consulate.

“They are simply unfit for the job. They have no training, and no sensitivity for cases like violence, rape, and abuses. They don't even answer their phones!” she remarked, “And because they don't answer or listen, people end up giving up or going to other organizations for help.”

What's worse, she said, was that the consulate actively tells activists and others to “stop and let it go, and claim that we'll be sued, banned, or arrested if we try to do more.”

In terms of the justification that the consulate simply does not have the financial and human resources, Sara gaffed, “other consulates are doing better even with limited resources. The Ethiopian community is actively taking up the financial burden, even though it is poorer. Why are the consulate staff paid a salary then? I don't know what their purpose is, but it's clearly not a good excuse to continue with these failures. Why do they continue to be obstructive with the Ethiopian community and activists? I mean, they can start by simply answering the phone.”

Currently, the most pressing issue for all is the dire situation of the shelter. As highlighted above, the shelter is extremely overcrowded and women are in prison-like conditions, lacking any services even the most basic needs like food and clothing. This has caused many survivors of abuse to further deteriorate in their mental health while they wait for repatriation, and/or months or years of unpaid wages. While the shelter is within the Ethiopian consulate grounds and the legal process is handled by the consulate's staff, its financing and many of its services are handled by the larger Ethiopian community.

“These women are not prisoners, but they are being separated from the rest of society and are living in very bad conditions with no ability to go out, to earn money, to live - without stopping the processing of their files to get their unpaid salaries or to lose their chances at repatriation,” S. B. noted.

“There are now more than 80 women in this small space, some of whom have been waiting for nearly a year. The space creates so much depression, immense stress, and isn't good for anyone's mental health,” he added.

“All of us in the community are concerned about this shelter,” Mululgeta said on her part, “the shelter is getting worse because the infrastructure is failing and the consulate isn't directly helping. We are trying, but it's not enough.”

Calls for change

In April 2018, there was a significant change in the autocratic government in Ethiopia after a wave of protests. Abiy Ahmed, known as a reformist politician became prime minister, and the expectations of change were high both domestically and within the Ethiopian diaspora.

Many hoped that with these changes, a significant progress will occur in terms of tackling mistreatment of Ethiopian workers, especially in the West Asian region. Yet, in Lebanon, such dramatic changes haven't been felt.

“Diplomats come and go, but they are still acting the same,” Sara said, adding that it seems to be a more structural problem rather than simply tied to individuals.

All spoken to felt that a more dramatic change will occur if the Ethiopian leader or other senior officials visit Lebanon and meet the communities, and are actively calling for that to happen.

“People believe in the prime minister, and I think he can pressure the Lebanese authorities to do important changes too,” S. B. mused.

“I'm cautiously optimistic,” Mululgeta said on her part, “but we have to pressure them to do change because they won't do it themselves. And we want the Ethiopian leader to come and see what they are doing here – in the consulate and the wider Lebanese society – just like what he did in the Arab Gulf.”

Until a major political intervention from a visit of the Ethiopian prime minister to Lebanon occurs, the Ethiopian communities in Lebanon have focused their call for significant changes in the consulate by urging it to represent the interests and needs of Ethiopian citizens and workers in Lebanon, providing reliable and trained caseworkers that can handle the large and ever increasing cases in the country, legal representation, financial support, and a stronger advocacy.

OpenDemocracy attempted to contact representatives from the Ethiopian consulate for comment. So far, at the time of this writing, such endeavors have been unsuccessful.

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