The Impossible Life of Refugees in Collapsing Lebanon

Lebanon is in free fall, but it seems it has not yet reached the bottom yet. In these months, the economic, social, and political situation has worsened. On July 15th, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was in charge of forming a new government, stepped aside after almost nine months, admitting failure. At the beginning of July, during a meeting with representatives of the diplomatic missions in Beirut, the caretaker Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, who resigned after last summer’s port explosion in Beirut, asked the international community for aid because, he said, Lebanon is a few days away from a social explosion”. However, without a government, the International Monetary Fund will not resume negotiations with the country.

Meanwhile, the devaluation of the Lebanese pound bounced to another record after Hariri’s speech, reaching 22,000 LL to the dollar on the black market (before the crisis, the exchange rate was 1,500 LL to the dollar). Hyperinflation has put more than half of the population below the poverty line, with serious difficulties finding food and essential goods. The shortage of fuel and the long queues to fill vehicles has increased the rage among people and caused violent fights in gas stations. Moreover, there are continuous electricity cuts and water rationing. These problems are causing consistent damages to the health system because hospitals are reducing surgeries and are suffering medicine shortages, which pushed pharmacies to call for strikes.

In all the multiple crises Lebanon is facing, however, there is a side that remains less visible because it concerns people already in a state of poverty and exploitation prior to 2019; the domestic and migrant workers and the Palestinians and Syrian refugees.


Domestic exploitation

In 2019, during the days of the October revolution, protesters waved posters with the words “Abolish kafala“, the latter perceived as one of the elements of that system of oppression that the Lebanese people were trying to dismantle. Kafala in Arabic means ‘sponsorship’, and it refers to a system that in theory wants to regulate the work and residency of domestic workers in Lebanon but, in fact, is a system of exploitation and human rights violations.

Domestic workers – estimated to be around 250,000 to 300,000 women before the crisis – are not included in the Lebanese Labour Law. They can work only through a sponsor, their employer, on whom they are dependent. In most cases, employers confiscate the women’s passports when they arrive at the airport. If they want to change job, they have to request permission because leaving the workplace without it would cost them their legal status and risk imprisonment. In this extreme condition of exploitation, many women experience sexual and psychological abuse, no payment, overtime work and restrictions on their movement around the country.

With the pandemic and the economic crisis, their suffering has only intensified. During the lockdowns, many domestic workers remained confined in their employer’s house with worsening exploitation and violence. Others lost their jobs and found themselves on the streets without refuge. Last summer, many videos circulating on social media showed employers leaving domestic workers on the street only with a bag of clothes. These women found themselves in poverty without a home, a legal job, and the fear of detention. Not being able to afford a life in Lebanon, most workers wanted to go back to their home countries.


Support efforts

Many organizations began to help these women  return to their countries of origin. One of these is the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a Lebanese NGO whose mission is to fight racist discrimination and abuse against migrant workers. Last year, ARM worked to give legal help to domestic workers in need. Farah Baba, one of the coordinators of the project, reports that, since last year, the majority of domestic workers have already left the country. ARM is no longer working on the evacuation and rescue effort as other NGOs have taken their place in regards to repatriation. However, the situation for the women who have remained in Lebanon is not improving. Baba explains that for Ethiopian workers, it is difficult to return home because they cannot get the necessary documents, and their country has not been providing assistance. Besides, many women are in prison because they do not have legal papers, and employers continue to evict domestic workers.

Moreover, economically, Baba claims that with the shortage of dollars in the country, exploitation and racism have increased, and it is difficult to secure jobs. The level of payments has shrunk, and if before the crisis domestic workers received five dollars per hour they now receive 10 or 20,000 LL (less than one dollars on the black market), putting them in a state of extreme poverty. Therefore, many workers are surviving thanks to the help of NGOs that deliver food packages, and others remain in their employer’s house even without a salary. Moreover, Baba claims that there is “competition” among migrants and refugees to secure jobs because Syrian and Palestinian women in need have started to work as domestic workers and ask for less money, around 10 or 7,000 LL. In addition, Palestinians do not need sponsorship because they have long-term residency under their refugee status.

Baba explains that fortunately, ARM reopened the Migrant Community Center in Beirut – one of their four centres closed because of the pandemic – where they organize language classes, social activities, and events. The Migrant Community Center is an essential place for domestic workers to meet other people, find help and escape their living situation even if it is for a short while. ARM still works to give legal support to individual workers for abuses and labour exploitation. They do advocacy work to abolish the kafala system and ask for new labour laws in coordination with other international NGOs. Their aim is also to increase awareness and fight misinformation around the idea that migrant domestic workers are responsible for the current financial and economic crisis.

Concerning the refugees, Baba claims that they work in low class jobs as cleaners or construction workers with low salaries, no protections, and sometimes without a contract. Furthermore, in this situation of crisis and instability, attacks against Syrian refugees have increased. ARM is planning to dedicate more efforts towards the refugees because they are also victims of job exploitation and racism – as Baba underlines.


Refugees in a collapsed country

In a state where the Lebanese middle class is disappearing because of poverty, tensions against migrants and refugees have increased. In Lebanon, where there are around 1.5 million Syrian refugees and approximately 192,000 Palestinians, racist episodes were already common before the crisis. However, tensions against refugees are becoming ever more frequent news, as many Lebanese come to believe that Syrians steal jobs from native workers. Unfortunately, this is not a new story in moments of crisis.

In 2015, the Lebanese government prevented UNHCR from registering Syrians, leaving them without legal residency. Today, Syrians have seen their income decrease, and they are living with support from international NGOs. This situation is exposing refugees to exploitation and repatriation. In this regard, the feminist local NGO “Women now for development” conducted research finding that the safe conditions to make people return to Syria are not yet in place.

The advocacy director, Anas Tello, explains that his NGO is working with Syrians, but also Palestinians and Lebanese people in need, through their two centers in the Bekaa valley near the Syrian border. In a report drafted by his organization, they outline the impact of Covid-19 and the economic crisis on Syrian refugees, women, and girls in particular. The economic crisis has forced many locals and refugees to leave their small businesses, and they saw their income decrease consistently. In this situation of instability, social, sanitary, and psychological conditions have deteriorated. In this regard, women are paying the highest price due to increased domestic violence, abuse, and harassment.

Furthermore, there is a lack of access to adequate medical and educational services. Many families have lost their daily income. It is difficult to find a job in the Bekaa valley due to the discriminatory labour laws, which restricts refugees to specific fields. Moreover, authorities apply discriminatory procedures towards Syrian refugees, such as mandatory house confinement, curfews, and obstructing access to aid. ARM reports that these measures also affect migrant workers.

Tello explains that his NGO is doing advocacy work and research to make people aware of the refugees’ living conditions. They focus more on women, girls, and children because they are the most vulnerable in this situation, organizing educational training with English and Arabic classes and teaching  computer skills. They also do health awareness sessions, leadership, and human rights courses. Due to the economic situation, the number of child marriages has increased, and the centre has launched a campaign with other partners against this practice. In these months, the centre reopened but in a reduced capacity because of the pandemic. However, it has regained its central role in the life of many people.

We can hear a similar story from the “Al Naqab Center for Youth Activities” that operates in the Palestinian refugee camp of Borj El Brajneh in Beirut. The head of educational activities, Nadia Younes, explains that the pandemic and the economic crisis have aggravated the stability of the community, and more and more families are unable to feed themselves. Moreover, during the lockdowns, the centre closed and have continued their educational activities online, which has been a challenge due to the continuous electricity cuts. However, as Younes says, many were able to adapt to the situation as refugees are uniquely placed to do: by just keep living. Al Naqab Center aims to provide Palestinians with proper education, develop their self-esteem and a strong identity, not only through classes but also through sports to build team spirit. In these months, they have reopened the centre and resumed classes and the other activities. However, the refugees’ living conditions are still dramatic. Many people live only with emergency aid from international NGOs.

In the multiple crises that Lebanon is facing, migrant workers and refugees live in a devastating situation. However, there is a shared line in the stories of these local organizations: they see the rescue activities as not being sufficient. Al Naqab Center’s goal is to increase the education programs because even in poverty, they believe it is what enables people to be the agent of their own change. They want the Palestinian youth to the empowered and act for younger generations.

Anas Tello of the NGO “Women now for development” also explains that their mission is to make women and girls aware of their rights and potentials. They want the youth to be part of the campaigns and the NGO’s work. An example is the grassroots campaign organized by women at the center with the aim of reducing social tensions between the Lebanese and Syrian people.

It is essential to stimulate the workers and refugees’ action without depicting them only as victims, Farah Baba explains as she describes the new project of the ARM migrant community centre in collaboration with the Demo Bar in the Gemmayzeh quarter. Every day a migrant woman cooks the typical meals from her country. The goal is to support workers and help others learn their culture. For Baba, it is fundamental to go beyond aid and emergency relief, and reinforce migrant workers’ agency to decrease racism and sustain them together with the refugees


Beatrice Morlacchi is a PhD candidate at the American University of Beirut.


Cover Photo: Migrant domestic workers carry placards during a protest to call for the abolishment of the sponsorship (kafala) system and for the inclusion of domestic workers in Lebanese labour laws; Beirut – May 5, 2019 (Anwar Amro / AFP).

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