migrant workers

As most of this blog’s readers know, an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed into the Mediterranean just south of Beirut a few minutes after take-off early Monday morning. This tragedy has shed some light on a well-known, but less discussed Lebanese connection to Africa. Many of the Lebanese on this flight, most of them men, were on their way to various countries in Africa where they had jobs or businesses. Most of them are from the south. 16 hail from the town of Nabatiyeh alone. So this tragedy is compounded by the sad facts of emigration and the “estrangement” (الاغتراب/الغربة) from homeland and family imposed by harsh economic conditions and government neglect. Many Lebanese politicians and citizens have commented on this phenomenon since the flight crashed. But few have managed to throw the nets of empathy wide enough to include another group of passengers aboard flight 409 who have also had to endure emigration, estrangement, harsh economic conditions, and much more. Most of the 31 Ethiopians who were aboard this flight were female domestic workers heading back home after a long, long stay abroad. One can only hope that this shared tragedy will also bring forth a shared humanity.

“Why do you Lebanese never treat us good?” screamed one Ethiopian woman as security forces prevented her from entering the governmental hospital in Beirut today to identify a body. “We are human beings like you. God created us. Why don’t I have the right to come in and see my sister?” (from The Guardian)

The list of passengers who boarded flight 409 can be found here (in English). You can also get to know some of the passengers on this Facebook group.


More than one female migrant worker dies in Lebanon each week, most of them are either pushed to suicide by abuse and confinement or fall from great heights while attempting to escape these conditions. October alone claimed the lives of eight, according to HRW. The problem has attracted enough attention from NGOs that the authorities in Lebanon have started pretending to do something about it. General Security started a half-hearted attempt at raising awareness through media campaigns. The Ministry of Labor has introduced a standard work contract, but it still refuses to amend the labor law to include migrant domestic workers — which would insure them maximum work hours and a minimum salary and days off. Implementation would still be a problem, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

In the meantime, a blogger has taken it upon himself to address the problem and document suicide and other incidents in a new blog: Ethiopian Suicides. Despite the name, the blog is concerned with migrant domestic workers in general and it is the initiative of a concerned citizen. Please, check it out. (hat tip: Moussa Bashir)

After I wrote a post last month touching on the issue of prostitution, this blog has been receiving hits from searches such as “beirut AND prostitute.” And while “russian prostitutes lebanon” is an expected search term, “beirut indian prostitutes” might come as more of a surprise — and both searches have led here. But these search terms are two faces of the same coin.

Most reporters on prostitution in Lebanon “venture” to Maameltein or to Hamra and many end up unwittingly marketing prostitution rather than shedding light on its problems. This Meow Lebanon article, for example, makes human trafficking sound almost benign. A better researched report from Executive magazine (via Qifa Nabki) deals with some of the problems of semi-legal prostitution of the super nightclubs, such as the practice of withholding women’s passports and restricting their movements. But with its artsy photographs (many from Amsterdam!) and its detailed description of the logistics, it feels at points like something out of a tourist guide. The fact that it does not venture beyond Maameltein and Hamra either contributes to the relatively “rosy” picture of the business.

The darker side is very dark. There is a certain hierarchy to prostitution in Lebanon, topped by the super nightclubs and their well-off clientele. Lebanese, Egyptian, and other Arab sex workers come next, many working the seedier places such as the older bars of Hamra. Further down the ladder lie the less known facets of prostitution. A recent article (h/t: Antoun) begins to scratch the surface by touching on forced and family aspects of the business. Far less common are discussions of under-aged prostitutes, both boys and girls. As one descends the prostitutional ladder, leaving Maameltein and Hamra behind, the value of the human body drops radically. The markets of Khaldeh and Sabra Palestinian Camp offer bodies as young as 14 for the equivalent of $6.5-$20.

A very fragile and invisible group occupies the lowest rung: female workers from Africa and Asia. Though some light is being shed on the abuse domestics in Lebanon are subject to, not enough is being said about the destitution and deception that leads some to prostitution. One can only imagine how fragile the position of a domestic worker would be if she ends up out of cash and living illegally in Lebanon. And there is no dearth of people willing to take advantage of that. I know from a friend who is active in human rights that some who come to the country as domestic workers end up offering sexual services in Ouzaii, Khaldeh, and Dawrah for as little as $6.5. Others are deceived into coming to Lebanon for the sole purpose of prostitution, as is the case with Burundi and undoubtedly many more.

The Lebanese authorities are complicit in all these various forms. Whether in the semi-legalized glamor of Maameltein or the desert of human rights of Palestinians and foreign laborers, the hand of the law is there: overlooking, encouraging, taking bribes, setting visa categories, and perpetuating the depraved conditions that make the oldest profession in the world a flourishing business in Lebanon. As far as reporters go, however, the lower down the ladder one goes, the less sexy the topic becomes. So do not expect to see photographs of the brothels of the poor adorning the pages of a glossy magazine.

I am off for vacation in a semi-wilderness of the Arctic Circle where the Internet connection is dubious. So, I will be offline for a couple of weeks, but I leave you with this:

A friend of mine decided to come to Lebanon for a visit with her American husband. She has a Green Card and has been living in the US for almost a decade. She approaches the consul with a full-fledged application asking for a multiple-entry tourist visa to Lebanon. Mr. Consul stares at her application, stares at her wide-eyed and asks:

— And you are from India?

— Yes.

— What do you do for a living again?

— I am a professor at XYZ University.

— Well, call in a couple of weeks. But to be honest with you, I don’t think it is possible for you to get a visa.

Why, one wonders, would the country of services and tourism reject a tourist visa application beforehand when the applicant is obviously a tourist who has no intention of remaining in Lebanon? The keyword is of course “India,” making this story an instance of how labor-labels or function-labels attach to certain nationalities in Lebanon. This is a conversation I was having not too long ago with Sean, about how “Sri Lanki,” “Russian,” “Saudi,” “Syrian,” etc. often indicate not just a nationality, but a boxed function in Lebanese society. That is true to some degrees of many places, but the law in Lebanon reinforces this state of affairs and makes it difficult to move beyond it and have access to wider functions in society by, say, living long enough in the country and acquiring citizenship. With the result that second generation Sri Lankis in Lebanon today still have the job prescription of, well, “Sri Lanki.”

My friend’s story is an instance of this “labor profiling.” Mr. Consul was not merely being bigoted, though. Like a good bureaucrat, he was interpreting the law within the bounds of his duty. General Security’s outline of entrance visas to Lebanon shamelessly illustrates how the legal enshrines social prejudices into a boxing-in system of job-prescriptions. Legally, my friend should have been applying for a “Visa for work/labor” (link on the left) for that is where “India” appears. Had she been applying for a tourist visa (as a non-Arab), she should have been from one of the countries listed under “Entrance visa for the citizens of some foreign countries coming for the purpose of tourism.”

There is much to say about these visa categories, particularly about the exemptions listed under “Note” in “Entrance visa for the citizens of some foreign countries etc.,” as well as about the “Fashion model” visa, which functions as a thin veil for prostitution. General Security requires STD tests from those applying as fashion models and facilitates their visas during the shopping month and the summer festival. This used to be the function of the “Artist” visa until not too long ago, which partly explains why for the longest time prostitutes were colloquially referred to as “artistes” (French pronunciation).

So, I leave you with this riveting read on General Security’s website. And hope you enjoy what is left of the summer!