Lebanese civil society groups have been desperately trying to provide humanitarian assistance to migrant workers following the deadly August 4 Beirut blasts. But it’s an uphill tasks providing for a marginalised group abandoned by their own and their host governments.
Over the past few weeks, volunteers at the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a grassroots Lebanese NGO, have been trying to find the whereabouts of migrant workers missing after the devastating August 4 Beirut blasts.
"Migrant workers and refugees are systematically dehumanised and marginalised in Lebanon, in life and in death," ARM said in a statement. The double explosions at Beirut port killed at least 181 people and injured more than 6,500, according to the latest figures. But NGOs are warning that the difficulties around identifying migrant victims have led many of them to slip through the cracks, unaccounted in initial official assessments, which excluded people mainly of non-Lebanese origin.
"We counted 13 dead and four missing by our own means. They include Filipinos, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians and one Kenyan woman, probably a domestic worker or dishwasher in a restaurant. But the number of migrant workers killed in the explosion is undoubtedly much higher," explained Farah Baba of the ARM in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Civil society steps in where the state fails
The Karantina district, a hardscrabble neighbourhood located near the Beirut port and abutting the trendy Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael areas of the Lebanese capital, is a dusty tangle of blown-up buildings, collapsed roofs and rubble these days. It was home to many migrants.
"It’s a marginalised neighbourhood, with precarious and unhealthy housing, wedged between the port and the largest open-air garbage dump in Beirut. People were already living there in very poor conditions. Today, many have nowhere else to go," said Baba. "Many migrants have lost their personal belongings, not to mention the trauma they have suffered. They no longer have their phones to alert their consulate, NGOs or the media about the disappearance of their loved ones."
Lebanon was already reeling from an acute financial crisis, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic when the August 4 blast devastated its capital, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Migrant workers, among the most marginalised groups, have been overlooked by state authorities barely capable of looking after its citizenry in the best of times.
The burden of providing basic aid, such food distribution, overnight stays, crowdfunding to pay for airfares home, has fallen on Lebanese civil society, noted Diala Haidar, Amnesty International's Lebanon campaign officer.
“Our civil society is very active and we have associations that help them, but solidarity should not rest on the shoulders of NGOs alone, the government must react," said Haidar in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Awaiting a ticket home
Dozens of former domestic workers, accompanied by a few children, have been camping in front of the Kenyan consulate in Beirut since August 10.
Earlier this year, many migrant workers were abandoned by their Lebanese employers struggling under the financial crisis. Now they have lost the precarious housing they managed after losing their jobs. Many migrant workers were injured in the August 4 blast and many more have joined the ranks of Lebanon’s abandoned foreign domestic workers.
Since they can't afford a ticket home, some Kenyan workers have started sleeping in front of the consulate, hoping their government back home will be able to repatriate them.
"Despite repeated reminders to the government, nothing has changed. For months, we have been asking the [Lebanese] state to coordinate with the embassies of the countries of origin to speed up the repatriation process of domestic workers thrown out onto the streets," said Haidar.
Lebanon is frequently accused of failing to protect the rights of migrant workers. The "kafala" system – which makes employers legal sponsors of migrant workers who cannot resign without their employer’s permission – has come under severe criticisms by rights groups. Employers can also simply confiscate their migrant workers’ passports, leaving their employees entirely at the mercy of their employers.
There are currently around 250,000 migrant workers in Lebanon employed under this system, which denies them basic labour protections. Some are paid as little as US$150 per month.
This article is a translation of the original in French.