By Josie Ensor
Daily Star staff
BEIRUT: At least six domestic migrant workers are believed to have committed suicide in the past month in Lebanon . But rather than being anomalies, their deaths are the most recent in an alarming trend. According to Human Rights Watch, more than one female migrant worker dies a week on average, and many more are injured trying to escape harsh working conditions in the country.
Last month, 26-year-old Ethiopian Matente Kebede Zeditu, was found hanged from an olive tree in Harouf, southern Lebanon . Ram Embwe, a 23-year-old Nepalese national, fell from the building where she worked in the Beirut suburb of Shiah a few days later, and Kassaye Atsegenet, 24, reportedly jumped from a seventh floor balcony in the neighborhood of Gemmayzeh in an attempt to free herself from the home in which she felt a prisoner.
“There is a clear pattern here and it can’t be ignored,” says Nadim Houry, a migrant rights researcher with the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). “People try to pass off suicides among migrant workers, particularly the Ethiopian community – saying that they are crazy and have higher suicide rates anyway, but you cannot attribute this to national characteristics.”
Human-rights advocates in the region believe these women are either pushed to suicide by poor working condition and abuse from with their employers or fall while attempting to escape. It is not uncommon practice for these migrant maids to have their passports taken away, or to be locked inside for years at a time by those who employ them.
There are believed to be over 200,000 domestic workers in Lebanon , many of whom are smuggled from Sri Lanka , Nepal , the Philippines and Ethiopia . In the last year, both Ethiopia and the Philippines took the step of banning travel to Lebanon due to the high number of suspicious deaths among the domestic worker community.
The ban has only pushed the trade underground, however, and agencies in the two countries are now sending women through third countries like Yemen .
Lebanon’s Labor Ministry attempted to tightened legislation on foreign workers in January this year by introducing a standard contract, but Houry says they have failed to enforce the new rights with commissioning bodies and watchdogs.
But, as Houry points out, the deaths of these female workers are the effect, not the cause. “It is the tip of an iceberg- a manifestation of the real underlying problem and this problem runs deep in our society.” Houry says a culmination of isolation from the outside world, the lack of privacy the women experience, coupled with the feeling there is no way out, leads women to take these drastic steps.
“Most of them sign a two to three year contract, where the employer pays up to $2,000, so when they realize they are unhappy after a couple of months and want to leave they can’t as they cannot afford to pay the money back. That is how they get trapped.
“They end up taking enormous risks to escape and it results in death.”
The growing pattern has not gone unnoticed, and one concerned Lebanese citizen has even set up a blog, “Ethiopian Suicides,” to catalogue incoming reports of deaths in the migrant community. The blog calls for Lebanese to treat their domestic workers “more humanely to stop them from killing themselves,” and has received support from human-rights groups in the region.
But, Lebanon cannot take all the blame for these women’s deaths.
Houry says agencies in the countries supplying workers go into the rural areas to lure recruits by knowingly giving them false impressions of work in the Middle East .
“For these [recruiters] the logic of profit outweighs the well-being of the person, and they will tell them anything to get them to come,” Houry says. “They forget there are people involved and it isn’t just a business.”
The site that reported the deaths of two Madagascan girls, Madagascar Online, even describes the situation tragedies as a paradisiacal holiday gone horribly wrong.
“The Lebanese adventure ended in a graveyard for Vololona and Mampionona,” the author writes. “The Lebanese paradise promised by recruitment agencies to Malagasy workers proves to be closer to hell than expected.”
One of the girls, a young 21-year-old mother named locally only as Mampionona, left Madagascar to work for a Lebanese family only a month before her death. In that short time she worked here, she wrote home saying she was forced to work long hours, often until 2 a.m, and was rarely allowed outside the house.
In almost all of the cases, including Mampionona’s, the police verdict has been suicide. However, both Migrant Rights, a group campaigning for migrants working in the Middle East , and Human Rights Watch, are questioning the cause of death.
Fatima Gomar, editor of Migrant-Rights.org, told The Daily Star that “the immediate course should be to investigate suicides of migrant workers as possible homicides, with the employer as the main suspect. If the investigation shows that the maid was mistreated by her employer, [they] must face consequences.”
Gomar and Houry agree that authorities need to conduct more thorough investigations into these cases in order to first rule out the possibility of murder.
Police should hold employers, agencies and embassies to account for domestic workers, Houry says, and “until there are proper investigations into these incidents, these needless deaths will continue.”