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LEBANON: 'Clear pattern' of migrant-worker deaths alarms rights advocates

November 10, 2009 |  6:11 am

On Oct. 21, 26-year-old Zeditu Kebede Matente of Ethiopia was found dead, hanging from an olive tree in the southern Lebanese town of Haris.

Just two days later, her compatriot, 30-year-old Saneet Mariam, died after falling from the balcony of her employer’s house in Mastita, just north of Beirut.

It's been a deadly month for women working as domestic laborers in Lebanon. At least six have died under mysterious circumstances, constituting a "clear pattern that cannot be ignored," Human Rights Watch researcher Nadim Houry told the Daily Star recently.

Most of the women died after falling from high windows or balconies, except for Matente, who died by hanging, and a 24-year-old Nepalese woman who died of a heart attack. Most of these women are thought to have been driven to suicide by employer abuse or else fell while trying to escape, although homicide cannot be ruled out.

Human Rights Watch released a statement calling on the Lebanese government to conduct a full investigation and make drastic reforms to prevent more deaths.

“The death toll last month is clear evidence that the government isn’t doing enough to fix the difficult working conditions these women face,” said Houry. “The government needs to explain why so many women who came to Lebanon to work end up leaving the country in coffins.”

Picture 6 There are an estimated 200,000 foreign maids in Lebanon, mostly women from South Asia, the Philippines and East Africa, many of whom have defied travel bans to come work in Lebanese homes for two- or three-year contracts. 

But unscrupulous recruitment agencies often make false promises to lure the women to Lebanon, where their passports are taken and they are forced to work long hours for little or no pay, driving many to desperation. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch estimated that one domestic worker died every week in Lebanon.

“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," Houry said. “They end up taking enormous risks to escape and it results in death.”

Such fatalities often are ignored or glossed over by the Arabic press, but a number of websites and blogs have popped up with the aim of tracking the deaths and abuses of migrant workers in Lebanon and the Middle East, including Migrant-Rights.org and EthiopianSuicides.blogspot.com.

“The immediate course should be to investigate suicides of migrant workers as possible homicides, with the employer as the main suspect," said Fatima Gomar, editor of Migrant-Rights.org, according to the Daily Star. "If the investigation shows that the maid was mistreated by her employer, [they] must face consequences.”

In addition to often harsh working conditions, African and Asian workers also face discrimination from Lebanese society at large. Earlier this year, a study by Human Rights Watch revealed that more than half of Lebanon's beach clubs do no allow foreign workers in their swimming pools.

In response, one manager of a popular beach club told the BBC that the club did not allow maids in because "we would get complaints; I would lose customers, and it would affect my business."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Video: A report broadcast by Al Jazeera International documents worker abuse in Lebanon. Credit: YouTube

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