North Africa, West Asia

Ethiopians in Lebanon: between revolution and slavery

The Ethiopian government continues to sidestep taking any meaningful action to rescue citizens trapped in revolution era Lebanon.

Zecharias Zelalem
3 March 2020, 12.01am
Domestic workers hold up placards condemning the kafala law
The Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon

More than 100,000 Ethiopians, mostly women, are employed as domestic workers in Lebanon, but the continued economic descent and scarcity of employment exacerbated by the economic crisis and political instability there has left increasing numbers of them out of a job or trapped in cycles of enslavement and abuse. 

During a three day state visit to the United Arab Emirates from 13 February 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took time to meet with Ethiopians from across the Middle East in Dubai and pledged concrete solutions for their problems. But despite calls for the government to plan an emergency evacuation of citizens in Lebanon, any such plans don’t appear forthcoming.

Abiy’s state visit to the United Arab Emirates, a country Ethiopia enjoys warm diplomatic ties with, appeared to be closely linked to the Gulf country’s promise to assist Ethiopia with its own foreign exchange woes. The visit may have paid off since on February 24th, the UAE’s ambassador to Ethiopia penned a deal to loan $100 million in support for Ethiopian business endeavours. But for Ethiopians in the Middle East, the highly anticipated events were an address to supporters at Dubai’s Al Ahli Stadium on 13 February, and a scheduled town hall style meeting with the Prime Minister a day later in Abu Dhabi. Deemed the opportunity to finally have their voices heard at the highest levels of government, expats from Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon made the trip.

Ethiopians in Lebanon hoped he’d discuss plans to rescue stranded citizens caught up in the chaos of the Lebanese revolution

“I’m proud to be among my fellow citizens here,” the Ethiopian Prime Minister said at a packed Al Ahli Stadium, to cheers and ululations by the crowd of flag waving Ethiopians. 

Ethiopians in Lebanon hoped he’d discuss plans to rescue stranded citizens caught up in the chaos of the Lebanese revolution. Mass demonstrations that began in October 2019 saw the ouster of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, but despite the appointment of a caretaker government in January 2020, protesters are adamant their demands aren’t being met and the unrest continues. The economic gridlock has the country’s most vulnerable sector of society, foreign domestic workers, among the hardest hit. Ethiopians are said to account for the vast majority of the domestic worker population in Lebanon and form the bulk of the migrant workers laid off as a result or trapped in cycles of unpaid labour. Reports of unemployed maids being forced to barter possessions for necessities such as food and just barely managing to get by as their meagre savings rapidly deplete, are making the rounds in Ethiopia. 

Despite the pressing nature of the problems Ethiopians are facing there, the Ethiopian Prime Minister and the senior government delegation that accompanied him to the UAE, made no specific references to Lebanon. Being in the midst of economic failure and attempts at political transformation as well as home to over a hundred thousand Ethiopians, didn’t garner it any sort of attention whatsoever.

Weeks after returning to Addis Ababa, what remains neglected by the government is the Ethiopian community in Lebanon

Ethiopian media was awash with images of a smiling Abiy greeting supporters, waving to admirers and posing for pictures with them. 137 Ethiopian residents of Abu Dhabi, facing a variety of difficulties were willingly repatriated to Ethiopia, flying aboard the same flight as the Prime Minister, something he has done on several previous occasions, including on state visits to Egypt and Sudan. But weeks after returning to Addis Ababa, what remains neglected by the government is the Ethiopian community in Lebanon. 

PM with Ethiopians.jpg
Prime Minister Abiy aboard his return flight with some of the repatriated citizens whose returns he facilitated
Office of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia

Revolutionary slavery

“There’s nothing left here,” says Lemlem, a teenager who says she worked at the home of a Lebanese couple in the city of Tripoli, north of the country. She was told by her employers that she’d no longer be paid. She escaped and is now considered on the run in a country where foreign workers are bound by law to their employers. 

“They said they could no longer afford to pay me, but they wouldn’t release me from my contract"

Escaping from the home of an employer, no matter what the circumstances, automatically voids a domestic worker’s residency papers. “They said they could no longer afford to pay me, but they wouldn’t release me from my contract. I’d just like to return home now as there are no opportunities here and no reason for me to stay in Lebanon.”

This near hostage situation domestic workers like Lemlem face in Lebanon is due to their being excluded from the labour law. Under the widely condemned kafala law implemented in Lebanon, foreign domestic workers are underpaid, overworked and have no right to change employer or object if held in abusive conditions. Their passports could be taken away and they’d have no legal avenues to challenge any of this. This has been exacerbated by the current crisis, as Lebanon’s economic woes have provided a pretext for employers to refuse paying their foreign workers. Plenty are now languishing in the homes of their employers, unpaid and left in perpetual limbo. Others resort to escaping and, like Lemlem, try their best to live and work unnoticed and away from the radar of immigration authorities who would promptly jail them. 

Lebanon’s economic woes have provided a pretext for employers to refuse paying their foreign workers

“We are getting calls everyday from women who are being held in slavery like conditions,” says Banchi Yimer. Banchi, a former domestic worker in Lebanon herself, founded Egna Legna Besidet, a Lebanon based Ethiopian domestic worker rights organization. The group’s hotline numbers and social media portals are flooded, she says, with calls from Ethiopians complaining about their employers refusing to pay them.

“Women who need the money to support children and elderly parents back home in Ethiopia are being forced to work for months without pay. I am aware that many Lebanese households are struggling to make ends meet, but we encounter far too many cases of financially capable employers using the convenience of the economic crisis to avoid paying their employees. It’s exploitation.”

A large number of domestic workers are being forced to work without pay with employers using the economic crisis as a pretext, forcing many to contemplate escaping 

It’s a grim, mundane existence for those locked up in homes with no prospects of being paid soon. There have been social media sightings of posts by Lebanese attempting to sell their Ethiopian workers, as if the women were tradable commodities. Escapees may be free from the bondage of an employer’s home but belonging to the lowest paid sector of the country’s workforce means domestic workers will find it considerably harder to get by with layoffs and rising living costs.

“Women who need the money to support children and elderly parents back home in Ethiopia are being forced to work for months without pay”

Chaltu lives in a cramped apartment in Beirut with three other Ethiopian migrants. She has been out of a job since December. “I didn’t think it would get this bad this quick,” she says. “We used to be able to find under the table jobs but even those are gone now. I can’t afford to pay the next month’s rent. I have already spent nearly a year’s worth of my savings on rent and food. Only God knows what’s in store for me tomorrow.”

Many migrant workers elected to wait out the storm instead of forking out the approximately USD 500  needed to book a one way flight back to Addis Ababa. That air ticket costs over three months salary for most Ethiopian migrant workers. For women who may have likely paid over five times as much in trafficker fees just to travel to Lebanon, it would understandably be deemed a colossal loss. On Sunday, the Ethiopian Airlines office in Beirut announced that it would accept payments for air ticket purchases in Lebanese pounds, something thought to ease things for potential travellers affected by the dearth of foreign currency. But the offer only extends to people with valid travel documents and residency papers. Escapees wouldn’t be able to benefit.

The plight of escapees

It’s the case of these escapees that has further compounded things. Due to the prevalence of abuse, large numbers of Ethiopians in Lebanon are undocumented and considered illegals for having fled the home of their employers. Under the kafala law, the employer acts as a sponsor and has the right to revoke an employee’s right to live in Lebanon. Escapees often cite repeated abuses and the withholding of pay as reasons for fleeing. Under Lebanese law, escapees are required to pay a fine of USD 200 to immigration authorities for each year of illegal residence. 

“The Lebanese government should announce an amnesty and allow the undocumented the right to leave without paying fines. Many want to leave, but can’t afford to do so.”

For a migrant who has spent three years working undocumented, the total cost of the fines and an air ticket could easily surpass a thousand dollars. Getting out of the country itself has become a costly endeavour.

“When we are talking about undocumented workers, we are talking about women who are now struggling to feed themselves,” Banchi explains. “The Lebanese government should announce an amnesty and allow the undocumented the right to leave without paying fines. Many want to leave, but can’t afford to do so.”

Ethiopian consulate: “show me the money”

By December the situation had deteriorated and the unrest showed no signs of slowing. The embassy of the Philippines in Beirut announced that it would fly out all nationals in Lebanon wishing to be repatriated free of charge. There are around 30,000 Filipino nationals in Lebanon and the embassy stated it would cover the costs of air tickets and any immigration related fines. There are over three times as many Ethiopian domestic workers in the country. The Ethiopian consulate announced that it too would work to facilitate repatriations, but only for citizens who are able to afford a USD 550 fee. Those with children over the age of two would pay an additional USD 250 fee per child. There is a nation-wide shortage of foreign currency and employers are either outright refusing to pay their employees or offering to pay them in Lebanese pounds, whose value continues to dwindle by the day. And yet, the Ethiopian consulate has required that domestic workers seeking to return to Ethiopia, pay almost four months worth of salary in American currency. 

“I haven’t worked in months, where am I going to find that kind of money?”

The Beirut based Ethiopian consulate’s Facebook page has been hit with a torrent of complaints by citizens desperate to leave the uncertainty of revolution era Lebanon.

“Shame on you!” would be the accurate translation of an Amharic language comment posted on the consulate’s page by one Seble Dinknesh. “At a time when even Lebanese citizens have run out of dollars, how do you expect us to find USD 550?”

Hundreds of other comments under the consulate’s 9 December post announcing the repatriation fees all echo the same sentiment. “Consular staff, where’s your humanity!” reads another. “I haven’t worked in months, where am I going to find that kind of money?”

cleaning windows.jpg
Ethiopian domestic worker risks falling to her death standing on the window sill outside an apartment to polish the windows of her employer’s home

The outrage directed at the Ethiopian consulate could be fuelled in particular by the institution being long renowned for its perceived incompetence when it comes to aiding citizens. An investigation by Ethiopian outlet Addis Standard revealed a pattern of neglect and of turning a blind eye by the consulate when dealing with reports of Ethiopian domestic workers dying in Lebanon. In October, Ethiopian activists and community representatives penned an open letter to the Prime Minister, calling on him to rein in consular staff accused of being complicit in the abuse of Ethiopians under the Lebanese kafala law.

Shamebo’s sham of a trip

The negative press surrounding the Ethiopian government’s perceived abandoning of its citizens in Lebanon likely contributed to the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry’s decision to send a high level delegation to Beirut to meet with residents there. At the 15 December meeting, Beirut based Ethiopians requested that the visiting diplomats relay their pleas to the government to plan the evacuation of the most vulnerable of Ethiopians left penniless and jobless. But the diplomats made no such promises. Instead, Shamebo Fitamo, the Ethiopian Director General of Middle East Affairs for the Foreign Ministry told the assembly that high on the agenda was the negative press his government was on the receiving end of. 

Shamebo made a strenuous effort to convince Ethiopians in Lebanon to stop speaking with journalists who he accused of ruining the consulate’s reputation. The diplomat made a number of baseless allegations, singling out Addis Standard and openDemocracy as being outlets that were defaming the country, stealing money from domestic workers and collaborating with enemy states to wreak havoc in Ethiopia. His bizarre tirade was recorded and made headlines in Ethiopia.

Shamebo Fitamo.jpg
Shamebo Fitamo traveled to Beirut on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, despite a mandate to discuss solutions to problems faced by Ethiopians there, he urged residents to stop communicating with journalists

Shamebo Fitamo’s antics in Lebanon were those of a man on a mission solely to put a stop to the flow of news reports highlighting the Ethiopian consulate’s all-round inadequacy. He had nothing tabled and his actions, or rather lack of action, further entrenched the belief that the Ethiopian government had no serious interest in the wellbeing of its community in Lebanon. But Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister still inspires and instills hope in many Ethiopians. The massive turnout at Al Ahli Stadium in Dubai testifies to the belief many have in the leader credited with ushering in an era of political reform in Ethiopia. 

Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize winning Prime Minister still inspires and instills hope in many Ethiopians

Two minutes with Abiy

Meseret Mandefero, a community representative and a member of the Egna Legna Besidet organization made the trip from Beirut to Abu Dhabi. Determined to get a message across to the Prime Minister, she wasn’t deterred by the three hour bus trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, nor the fact that the odds of her being picked out of the packed auditorium full of people with raised hands, were slim. Her patience and perseverance paid off and she was handed the mic and given two minutes to speak.

Meseret made the most of it and explained the dire situation of the Ethiopian community in Lebanon struggling to adapt amid a severe economic crisis and an ongoing revolution. She addressed the consulate’s inability to make a difference and pleaded with the Prime Minister for, among other things, assistance in facilitating the return of Ethiopians from Lebanon. She spoke of the necessity of a crackdown on human traffickers in Ethiopia who continue to trick young women into paying large sums of money to make the trip to Lebanon. Part of her statement was broadcast for millions to see by the state run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC).

The Prime Minister appeared stunned by when told of the total number of Ethiopians in Lebanon. “There is a lot of potential if that community’s talents and abilities can be harnessed,” Prime Minister Abiy responded. He made a half-hearted pledge to inquire into what she told him. Weeks later, there remains no indication that he has even remembered their brief exchange.

Tirunesh Gelaneh has accumulated the USD 550 required to register for repatriation. “It took all of my remaining money. I will now return to my family empty handed, but I had no choice. Others are starving or being forced to sell their bodies.”

She says she didn’t share the same enthusiasm as others when she heard the Prime Minister would be holding discussions with Ethiopians in the Middle East. “We have no one but our creator to look after us,” Tirunesh sounded exasperated.

“May God grant him health, I don’t wish him harm. But I’m realistic, we’re on our own out here.”


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