There are over a quarter of a million migrant domestic women workers in Lebanon. Institutional and legal protection for them remains very weak. Caritas Lebanon, through its Migrant Centre (CLMC), is one of the few local organisations making efforts to ensure decent working conditions.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Caritas Internationalis President and Archbishop of Manila, went to Caritas projects for migrants during a visit to Lebanon on 28 February to 2 March. He went to safe houses, a detention centre, a school and celebrated Mass.
“Some of the migrant workers end up in worse conditions than what they left behind at home,” he said. “There are social costs not only on the dignity of the workers who have been abused, but the social costs on their families back home.”
Cardinal Tagle went to one of the Caritas safe houses, closed places where women and their children live in protection from harm. These residents have survived the worst cases of abuse, and are often still at risk from traffickers or abusers.
“My employer refused to let me leave the house,” said Aisha, a Filipina now staying in a Caritas centre in Beirut. “For three years I worked from 6am until 2am at night. I never got a day off. I wasn’t paid for three years. I couldn’t buy any new clothes, even underwear.
“My employers would verbally abuse and even beat me. I feared for my life. I climbed through the window and jumped to the ground. I could have been killed. I ran away and came to Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre.”
Caritas is helping her try to get the money she is owed.
“People have too much power. It leads to abuse,” said Nimalah Wijesinghe, who works in the centre. “When you arrive, the airport immigration hand over the passport to the employer. If the domestic worker wants to move to another job, the employer has the right to say yes or no. It’s like the 12th Century.”
Nimalah Wijesinghe came to Lebanon from Sri Lanka 28 years ago, and before she came to Caritas she was a domestic worker herself.
“I was involved in an incident in 1991, when I was 27 years old,” she said. “I woke up in hospital in 1991 with amnesia. I didn’t even remember my name.” She was also paralysed from the waist down. “Somebody had hurt me. When I was taken to the hospital, they thought I was dead,” she said.
With the help of religious sisters, she managed to piece back her life. “The doctors said I might not be able to walk again. It was a devastating moment,” she said. “But I didn’t believe it. I knew I would walk again. I focused on being lucky to be alive, on being able to see the sun shining. I didn’t have anything, I just had my faith.”
She taught herself to walk again, but in 2006 she lost her leg. “I met a Caritas social worker when I was looking for help to get back to Sri Lanka. After a while they told me I was suitable for this work,” she said. “I’m so happy to be here. I’m working with people with experiences like my own. I think about what happened to me and I can give them hope.”
After visiting the centre, Cardinal Tagle said, “Caritas and other charitable institutions do their share, but the international communities, the governments should take care of their citizens. But why do many have to leave home to find jobs elsewhere. What can we do to provide decent lives and employment to our own people.”
Cardinal Tagle visited a Caritas school for the toddlers of migrant workers. They don’t have access to state schools, can’t afford private ones, so would either have to go back to their home countries or not lose out on an education. The lessons are built around understanding rights.
“I love very much what we saw in this centre for children of migrants,” said Cardinal Tagle. “How dedicated the social workers are in drawing what’s best from them, in the midst of their traumas.”
Cardinal Tagle also visited a Detention Centre for Foreigners, a government facility holding around 500 foreigners with legal issues in Lebanon and with irregular immigration status. Located in the basement of a car park, conditions inside the Detention Centre have been repeatedly criticized for not respecting international standards.
Since 2000, the year the Detention Centre opened, Caritas has been the sole NGO ensuring social, medical and legal assistance to more than 3,500 detainees per year.
“Every detention centre gives you some sort of experience of purgatory or limbo,” said the cardinal.
“We appreciate the efforts of those in charge, Caritas, legal profession, to make the lives of detained people a little bearable. But they’re under a bridge, they don’t see the sun, they don’t get exposed to fresh air, they’re living in darkness.”
After years of lobbying by Caritas, the government will provide a new modern facility in a few weeks time. “The good news is that they’ll be transferring to a better house,” said Cardinal Tagle. “We hope that improvements will also be made on expediting of the resolution of their problems.”