Alem Gifeto could not stop hugging her mother. Along with 94 other Ethiopian domestic workers, she returned to Ethiopia last week after being separated from her family for two years. Like many Ethiopian women in Lebanon hired as domestic workers, Gifeto was mistreated under the country’s discriminatory kafala system, or indentured servitude, that ties an employee’s legal status to their employer. After years of abuse, she had given up hope of ever returning to Ethiopia. “I’m just thankful it’s all over,” she told VICE News from her home in Ethiopia’s Hadiya region. “I still can’t believe I’m home.”
The kafala system, also prevalent in Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, is known for taking advantage of domestic workers from countries around the world. In Lebanon, where more than half of the country’s domestic workers are Ethiopian, employers have been accused of confiscating passports, withholding salaries, and inflicting physical and sexual abuse. Now, as the country reels from an economic crisis, global pandemic, and the Beirut blast, many of the women brought to Lebanon have been left unemployed, largely neglected by their government, and unable to afford return flights to Ethiopia. Many domestic workers have also been rendered homeless, dropped off outside of their consulates by employers no longer able to afford their salaries. Some women were forced to sleep on makeshift cushions laid over pieces of cardboard on sidewalks. “He threw me out like he was discarding trash,” Gifeto said of her former employer.
But at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport last week, Gifeto and other Ethiopian women smiled and cheered as they hugged and posed for pictures. Their return home was paid for by Egna Legna Besidet (Amharic for “us migrants for us migrants”), a local domestic-worker run NGO, the staff and leadership of which is composed of current and former Ethiopian domestic workers.
“I’m never coming back,” Eyerus Sinaga told VICE News before she boarded the plane. Gifeto agreed: “My employer owes me nine months salary. Twice I asked him about my pay, each time he slapped me across the face and told me to be quiet. I worked seven days with no days off. Then one day, he told me he would take me to the bank to give me my salary. Instead, he drove me to the [Ethiopian] consulate and told me to get out of the car. He just drove off and left me without my clothes or passport.”
The women on the repatriation flight already knew each other prior to arrival at the airport, Gifeto said, because many of them had spent weeks together sleeping outdoors, exposed to the pandemic and sexual harassment. They also stood outside of the Ethiopian consulate, as diplomats in Beirut largely ignored the growing number of Ethiopian women in Lebanon protesting against their mistreatment. (A consular official later stated that it was due to the fear that the women might have contracted the coronavirus.)
For Ethiopian domestic workers, their best bet for return is through small organizations with limited budgets, like Egna Legna Besidet. On the ground in Lebanon, the team coordinates a food delivery drive, and works to shelter and repatriate domestic workers. The organization has raised $200,000 so far through crowdfunded support. For months, Mekdes Yilma, an Ethiopian domestic worker and one of the founding members of Egna Legna Besidet, was part of a team of volunteers working to ensure soon-to-be travelers had food, shelter and clothing until their departure. The women who returned home to Ethiopia last week had all escaped their employers or were abandoned outside consulates like Gifeto. “Not one of them had passports or travel documentation of any kind,” said Banchi Yimer, the founder of Egna Legna Besidet and former domestic worker. “All of them are victims of abuse, some of them are owed years of salary.”
Egna Legna Besidet paid for 74 of the women to return last week, and has funded the returns of around 200 women since the beginning of July. Alternatively, the International Organization for Migration, an organization that received just under a billion dollars in earmarked and non earmarked donations last year from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, paid for 48 women to return home last week. According to press releases, the organization has funded a mere 61 returns since the start of the summer. (The International Organization for Migration has not responded to requests for comment). Still, the organization has recognized the unique difficulties domestic workers face in Lebanon. Last month, the International Organization for Migration announced that 74 percent of migrants in Lebanon do not have a secure income, and 40 percent are food insecure. They also determined that eight percent of those affected by the Beirut explosions are migrant workers.
“The IOM will coordinate with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, to continue to resettle refugees from Lebanon, which has the largest refugee per capita population in the world, and to scale up efforts for voluntary return of migrants who wish to go home,” said organization spokesperson Angela Wells in a statement. Migrant workers have been assisted by the International Organization for Migration during other times of crisis, though their efforts have yet to be replicated during the pandemic. During the 2006 conflict between Lebanon and Israel, the organization evacuated 11,000 migrant workers from Lebanon to their countries of origin throughout Asia and Africa.
The governments of countries with domestic workers in Lebanon have largely dodged the issue of migrant abuse altogether. When Sierra Leone’s president, Julius Maada Bio, flew to Lebanon earlier this month to receive medical treatment at the American University Hospital in Beirut, he made no attempt to address the plight of the Sierra Leonean women stranded in the country. In July, Kenya’s consul general in Beirut, Sayed Chalouhi, advised Kenyan nationals to earn their repatriation fees through prostitution, while Ethiopia’s foreign ministry director for Middle East affairs, Shamebo Fitamo, openly criticized those calling for repatriations from Beirut, tweeting that they should worry about the health of millions in Ethiopia instead.
Despite assurances from the Lebanese government, none of the abusive employers have faced consequences either, and migrant workers have no redress for mistreatment under the kafala system. Regardless of severe working conditions, employees are not permitted to quit or leave their places of work. There have been many recorded cases of migrant workers being driven to suicide, or left with physical and mental illnesses from continuous abuse. Two domestic workers die per week in Lebanon, according to Lebanese authorities.
One of these women, Bekelu Terresa, died in July. She was regularly beaten and systematically starved at her employer’s home in Beirut, said Yilma. She was taken to a shelter after a year, and died by suicide while waiting to return home. Yilma knew Terresa, and said that her death still impacts her to this day.
“Terresa told us about her husband in Ethiopia, who showed her no compassion and only called to demand she send him money,” Yilma said. “Everything weighed heavily on her. She desperately wanted to escape the pain but was convinced that she was stranded in Lebanon. For me, her death was one of the worst moments of my life. I cried for days. But being at the airport and [watching] them leave for home helped me heal. I’ve been able to smile and laugh again.”
Earlier this month, Lebanese labor minister Lamia Yammine announced that her office was looking to implement a “unified contact” that would replace the kafala system. Human rights groups say it’s a step in the right direction, but that without proper enforcement it will merely be ink on paper.
“The new contract doesn’t make sense to me. There are no jobs available anyways,” said Yimer. “We are yet to hear of measures to hold abusers accountable, without that it’s no different than the current system. Right now, Lebanon should prioritize departures and remove the long waiting period. Workers just want to go home.”
Even once the funds are raised, however, repatriation is still difficult. “Processing their returns was a hassle,” Yimer added. “The complicated Lebanese bureaucratic procedure took over three months. These are women suffering from trauma. They should be allowed to leave the country quickly.” The government of Ethiopia didn’t make it any easier, either. In June, Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopia’s national carrier, more than tripled the cost of a one way return ticket and two week quarantine to $1,450. For stranded women, this cost was untenable.
Hirut Woldemariam, another woman repatriated to Ethiopia last week, escaped from her employers. However, leaving her job instantly voided her immigration documentation to the country and she didn’t have a way to return to Ethiopia. “After escaping my abuser,” she said, “I lived on my own for two years and worked under the table. But the threat of being caught left me constantly in fear.” If found, Woldemariam faced arrest and possible imprisonment. Woldemariam also contracted tuberculosis while hiding from Lebanese authorities. “I was sick. With no money or job, I couldn’t afford rent or medication. Since I was undocumented, most hospitals would have refused to treat me.” (Lebanese hospitals have refused to help migrant workers infected with the coronavirus.)
Woldemariam said other escapees didn’t fare much better. “Many of them are in the streets now and caught [the coronavirus] as a result. In my condition, [it] would have been enough to kill me.” Reunited with her grandmother in Addis Ababa, Woldemariam is recovering now, and Egna Legna Besidet paid for her treatment at a private hospital. “They saved my life,” she said. “I would have died in Lebanon.”