We at ARM have been working with migrant communities in Lebanon for around 5 years. In this time, we have come across many stories we feel compelled to share, since they happen every single day to thousands of migrant workers who live among us, tucked away in the shadows, but right under our noses.
The stories in this series are firsthand eyewitness accounts from anonymous sources. Names and locations have been changed to protect the privacy of those concerned. All the events described are otherwise 100% accurate.
“Hello? I am in jail, nobody understands my language. Can you help me?”
Pradip’s phone rang in the middle of the night. Alina, a young Nepali domestic worker, was arrested for stealing. While being held at the police station, she got hold of a phone and called Pradip, the only Nepali social worker in Lebanon. She called him to ask for help. She had been deprived of her basic right to speak to a lawyer, her embassy, or a translator, after being arrested. She was therefore unable to communicate with the police officers, since she only speaks Nepali. The reasons for this deprivation were unclear, as they usually are, but seemed to fall somewhere in between negligence and incompetence. Regardless, she was simply locked up in a tiny dark room, forgotten by all, until she called Pradip.
Pradip then called me to tell me Alina’s story. I picked him up on this hot July day, and we went to the police station, where we asked the police about Alina (or “the girl” as many people condescendingly call migrant women, even when they are old enough to be their grandmothers). They sat us down in an office, and we spoke about Alina’s case, as well as a few other cases involving migrant workers, which they hoped we could help them with.
[In fact, a funny thing happens when social workers talk to the police. Instead of the suspicion I expect them to greet us with – since we may be undermining their work or exposing their practices – police officers often convey a sense of relief. Some seem glad to meet us because we might be taking a case off their hands, and emptying a cell for them. Others seem relieved because they are genuinely glad this forgotten “girl” will finally get some assistance. Whether we are there to defend her rights, or simply translate what she is saying, at least she would no longer be a miserable presence in their midst that they can do little about.]
Alina’s case, though convoluted, seemed pretty straightforward to the police officers, who have encountered this particular type of case many times:
Her employer accused her of stealing from him – eight times. He said she had been stealing from him regularly, but he only decided to report her to the police this time. The police told me straight-out that they did not believe the man, because his story made little sense. But they detained her anyway, as was their duty. She had been there for one day and one night, in a tiny dark cell, awaiting her transfer to the investigator. They told us we could speak to her right before the transfer.
We waited for several hours, in the sweltering heat wave that had taken over the country, to speak to Alina. The police station was very busy because they had found grenades in the area that same morning. They kept coming in and out of the room we were waiting in, to give us very different – and very incorrect – estimates of how long we still had to wait. Just ten minutes. Five more minutes. Half an hour.
We used this time to make copies of the documents Pradip needed to take back to the Nepalese consulate. One last time, they came back to the room and told us we would need to wait a bit longer. I said no. We had had enough. We wanted to talk to her now, just for a couple of minutes. I was courteous but firm, and they quickly acquiesced. (I guess I should have tried that sooner!). They finally took us to her cell, which was about 10 meters away from where we had been waiting all morning.
The accidental torturers
Alina was locked away in a cell no bigger than a small bathroom, at the end of a short dark hallway. The room was not lit at all; we could barely see her silhouette. The tiny opening in the door was just large enough to reach a hand through. (Remember, she is only being held for questioning – this is not jail!).
When she saw us, she did not wait for us to speak. She did not say hello. The moment she saw Pradip, and recognized him as a fellow Nepali, she told him, in a weak voice: “Please bring me some water, I’m so thirsty”.
I turned to the group of policemen nearby, her current guardians. At this point I was so hot, angry, and tired of waiting, that my politeness vanished and gave way to impatience and irritation: “You left her here all night without food or water? And why is she in complete darkness?”
“We fed her last night!” they retorted.
“She is saying she hasn’t had water since yesterday.”
“Yiiiiii, yes we forgot the water! Oops!”
The childish guilty smile he flashed at us enraged me.
“You forgot her? Without water? In this heat?? I have been drinking all day and yet feel weak and dehydrated, imagine how she is doing! Aren’t you supposed to be taking care of her until she is transferred?”
(verbatim) “Wallah sorry, nseena...” (honestly, sorry, we forgot)
“She is in a cell 3 meters from your desk and you forgot? And why does she have no light?”
“Well you know, this is the generator, not normal electricity... You know how it is.”
We went to the police station’s cafeteria and brought her food and water, and Pradip and Alina had a long conversation while she ate in the dark. By that time the police officers seemed cautious not to enrage us further, and left us alone with her for as long as we wanted.
The next step was her transfer to the investigation room in the adjacent building. The police told us she would be heading there shortly. We headed for the room and waited outside, if only as a last-ditch effort to ensure that what remained of her rights was not violated. We could not enter until she was there, so they told us to wait in the stairway for a few minutes. We waited for over half an hour, perhaps because she was once again “forgotten”. The policeman finally came to us and said, “she won’t be transferred today after all: the interrogation room no longer has space to take her in. It will have to wait until tomorrow”.
“What if you had transferred her in the morning? Would there still have been place?” I asked irritably. After his slight confusion, he chuckled, shrugged, and mumbled a few incoherent nothings, à la “umm… well, you know how it goes…”
“Yes I do. So just one more night in a dark cell without water. No big deal, right?”
The ugly truth
A few days later, the investigator met with her employer to ask him about the incident. He told the investigator, without a trace of fear or remorse (in fact with a smile and a wink), that he had called the police in order to “teach her a lesson”. She hadn’t stolen anything from him, not once. Apparently she had developed a strong personality, too strong for his liking, and was therefore becoming “less obedient”. He had her arrested to show her that she was powerless against him, so that he could put her back “in her place” and regain full control. He used it as a scare tactic. Because he could.
He deliberately abused the legal process in order to psychologically abuse his employee, and assert his dominance over her. And seeing as he left the police station without the slightest warning or punishment, the system is complicit in this widespread fear mongering that many employers use to keep their employees docile and obedient, by allowing it to happen with impunity. As such, using the threat of “calling the police” to scare a migrant worker into compliance has become a commonplace and effective control tactic in some households, even when the migrant worker is completely aware of her innocence.
The investigation quickly concluded that Alina was innocent. The employer insisted she come back and work for him, since she had now “learned her lesson”. She wanted to leave the country, but he implored the police to send her back into his custody: “she’s been with me for years, I like her, I’m used to her! I don’t want to go through the ordeal of getting a new one”. Fortunately (and surprisingly for me at the time), the police honored her choice to go back to Nepal instead.
I only hope that being back home can erase some of the horror she had to endure for her “crime” of being a migrant woman in desperate need of work.
How the Kafala System consistently fails migrant workers
This case illustrates one way in which migrant workers are so easily abused or exploited under the kafala system. This “sponsorship” system fails to protect the basic human rights of migrant workers, by legally tying workers to one employer for the duration of their contract, which is essentially a form of feudalism that was considered outdated back in the 18th century. Domestic workers are especially vulnerable, since they are isolated in households, and remain excluded from labour laws and social protections, including healthcare and other essential services (since domestic work is not considered work). This is compounded with the fact that they are mostly women, usually uneducated, and from lower socio-economic backgrounds, which means they are often subjected to multiple forms of discrimination (such as classism, racism, sexism). Their lack of protection creates slavery-like conditions by rendering migrant domestic workers completely dependent on their kafeel (sponsor), who has sweeping powers over their entire stay in the country, including entry and exit, legal documents (without which they are routinely arrested), food, sleep, health, accommodation, etc… This creates a total dependency of the worker on the employer, which leads to total vulnerability. This power imbalance can leave employees vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence.
In October 2011, Ms. Shahinian (the first UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery) urged the Lebanese Government to enact legislation to protect the domestic workers in the country, without which many end up living in domestic servitude: “Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, the majority of whom are women, are legally invisible. That makes them acutely vulnerable.” “States are under an obligation to ensure the realization of the right to truth about violations in order to end impunity and promote and protect human rights and provide redress to victims and their families.”
This is not to say that all domestic workers are abused by their Lebanese employers.
This is not to say that Lebanese employees are not sometimes abused by their employers as well. There are good employers, and happy migrants, who, despite the kafala system, are able to lead relatively decent lives in Lebanon.
But it is undeniable that a system that allows for unchecked abuse is overdue for an overhaul. We at ARM, along with our local, regional, and international partners, agree that the kafala system is the root cause of much of the abuse and injustice faced by migrant workers in the region, and continuously demand its modification or its replacement with a system that protects the fundamental rights of all migrant workers.
A few days after writing this, I attended a conference about
migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Members of the Internal Security Forces and General Security were present. I will never forget their looks of disbelief when a speaker mentioned that migrant workers are afraid of the police, and that employers often threaten them by saying: “I will take you to the police!” The ISF and GS members were apparently unaware of this, and seemed genuinely puzzled. “But we are here to help them. Why would they be scared of us? They should be coming to us for help.”