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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 93,  December 2003, pp. 239-242

Afro-Asian Migrants in Lebanon

Rev. Martin J. McDermott, S.J.


Pastoral Committee for the Afro-Asian Migrants,

Beirut, Lebanon

I live in Lebanon, a country which receives many domestic servants from Asia and Africa (about 200,000) who come to work for a few years and then return home, and also a considerable number (1000 or so) of South Sudanese refugees from the war and persecution of Christians, who seek to be resettled in other lands.  

Some of us priests and sisters began offering Mass and pastoral care for these migrants in the mid-1980s,  It was in 1992 that I had my first legal adventure, in a case that is unfortunately rather typical. A Christian employer raped his Filipino housemaid, and his son then brought her to an abortion clinic, whose ministrations she refused. The son put her in a taxi, but instead of returning home as he directed, she fled to me. And there began the first of my learning experiences about the Lebanese police and legal system with regard to migrants, especially since the employer was rich respected , and influential. Despite his efforts, the child that girl was carrying is born, baptized and now living with his mother in the Philippines. But a year later I learned that the next Filipino housemaid hired by the same man was raped, forced to abort, became depressed to a point nearly suicidal, and had to be repatriated to the Philippines. And I also learned from a neighbor that the same employer had previously attacked an earlier Filipino maid in the shower, that the girl ran naked out of the house up the street to take refuge in a home where she knew another Filipina worked. 

My point is that this same man, a well-respected coutourier, could go, the next day, to one of the many agencies trafficking in foreign housemaids, pick another maid, bring her home, and start all over again. The three cases I know of happened 11 years ago, when the villain was already an old man, and I suppose by now he may be warming himself in hell. But the system goes on which gives any employer complete power over his or her domestic servant while she is in the house.  

But I do not mean to complain. For in the course of these adventures with the law and the police I have met and come to know a small number of benevolent Lebanese lawyers who have willingly worked for nothing or practically nothing to defend these defenseless foreign housemaids. Six of these lawyers are in the process of forming themselves into what we call our Legal Research Group, which we expect will have the cooperation of a local Faculty of Law: that of the Univesité St-Joseph. 

I am not a lawyer, but an interested observer of the law. The first lesson I learned is that domestic servants are not covered by the existing labor law of Lebanon. The second lesson is that the Lebanese laws covering foreign labor are inadequate and woefully out of date. 

The main law was made in September, 1946, and the latest law to deal specifically with the entrance of foreigners in Lebanon was from 1962. At that time the number of foreign workers in Lebanon could practically be counted on the fingers of both hands, and since then conditions have totally changed. In the absence of up-to-date laws, the prevailing relationship between the employer and employee remains the very ancient one: the relation of master to slave. The result is that, within the home, the employer has virtually total control, and the police and justice system tend to work in the employerÂ’s favor, and also in favor the importing agencies who traffic in foreign domestic labor. 

There are some very good Lebanese employers of housemaids, but these do not need the control of laws. But the majority of employees do need to be protected from their employers and employment agencies by good laws. The human race being what it has been ever since that famous conversation with a snake in a garden, it is very dangerous to give one human being total control over another.

Together we are forming a Legal Research Group, in order to pool the experience of these lawyers and to make available accounts of the cases they have won, in the hope that they will serve as precedents towards the formation of Lebanese jurisprudence in this hitherto much neglected field.

For example, one of our lawyers has won a case, on appeal, against an employer who did not pay his housemaid. Too often the employer is able to take his maid to the airport, say “Thank you and good-bye,” without giving her the money he owes her. But in this case the girl escaped from the house, and our lawyer took her case. The first court judged it to be a civil matter, which would in practice have been a victory for the employer. We know this because more than 10 years ago another of our lawyers won a case against a non-paying employer, and we are still trying to collect the money that was awarded in a civil judgment. So far we have collected about half of it because the employer keeps pretending her inability to pay, and we are hesitating before the cost of initiating another lawsuit just to make her pay.  But in this recent case, on our lawyerÂ’s appeal, the court reversed itself and judged it to be a penal case: holding that the employer violated the unwritten compact with his employee. In a penal judgment he either pays or goes straight to jail. So of course he paid right away. This sets a precedent.

Another lawyer of ours has initiated a case against an employer who does not let his Filipino housemaid out of the house. She has signed a document saying she does not want to go out for a day off, is perfectly happy in the house, and has no desire even to receive a visit from her sister, who, happily for us, works in the house of our lawyer who is bringing the suit. If we win this case, it will establish the domestic servantÂ’s right to a day off, and will also refute the comedy of accepting at face value a document signed by a household servant confined inside the house of her employment. We never know what a judge is going to decide, but we hope and pray.    

Another lawyer of our group is finishing a book of about 400 pages treating how Lebanese law for migrants relates to international law and the migrant law of other countries and international conventions Lebanon has signed. He promises it will surprise many judges.

Our second concern is with Sudanese asylum seekers. 

They may enter Syria from Sudan without a visa, but the Syrian security services often work closely with their Sudanese counterparts, which makes it dangerous for the Sudanese to stay there. So the Sudanese often enter illegally into Lebanon and there apply for recognition by the UNHCR.  The HCR then decides, arbitrarily it seems, whether to pronounce them economic migrants or true refugees. Given the fact of the Khartoum governmentÂ’s actual persecution of Christians in South Sudan, it seems to us that all who have fled those parts deserve the status of refugee. Such recognition by the HCR makes them eligible to be resettled.  Meanwhile, recognized as refugees or not, they earn their living as best they can in low-paying jobs which they consider themselves lucky to find.

But a Sudanese, whether carrying a Refugee Card from the HCR or not, can be arrested at any time, brought before a judge, who will sentence them to three months in prison for illegal entry to Lebanon. And after their sentence is finished, the General Security nonetheless often keeps them in prison, making it very hard for the wife and children to live, and in the constant fear of being sent back to Sudan.

In conclusion, I have two suggestions:

First, our Legal Research Group consists of an active nucleus of 6 Lebanese lawyers, would be very grateful for collaboration and help of those outside Lebanon who have similar interests.

Second, the Sudanese asylum seekers in Lebanon are now in limbo. Some are recognized by the UNHCR as refugees, and others not. Those recognized as refugees are on a long waiting list for resettlement, and meanwhile are subject to arrest for being illegal. On the other hand one can understand why the Lebanese state, already saddled with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, is unwilling to shelter these Sudanese. 

I see Europe as a possible solution. No country in Europe is now replacing its own population, and the immigrants waiting to come in from North Africa and Turkey are mostly Muslim. There are now in Lebanon about a thousand asylum seekers, most of them bound together in solid Christian families, who would be delighted to get into Europe. And because of their Christian culture, Europe could easily assimilate them. Europe boasts to be, in theory if not in practice, color blind. The trouble is that in practice Europe is also culture-blind. And the social pain of trying to absorb people of cultures that do not assimilate is already being felt.

Thus in a practical way, Europe is asked to open its eyes and recognize the obvious: its Christian roots.