Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) Lebanon Case Study: Migrant Domestic Workers and the 2006 Crisis

Executive Summary

This case study on migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Lebanon has been conducted for the EUfunded project ‘Migrants in Countries in Crisis: Supporting an Evidence-Based Approach for Effective and Cooperative State Action’. Six case studies have been prepared for this project, to provide detailed information on the impacts of crises on migrants, particularly in the longer-term. For this case study, we have adopted a two-pronged approach. First, we examine the impact of the July-August 2006 war on MDWs in the country at the time, to analyse how domestic workers and other relevant governmental and civil society actors responded to MDWs’ needs during the crisis, and lessons learned as a result of this crisis. Nonetheless, MDWs themselves do not identify the 2006 war as a significant crisis for them, and Lebanon is currently in the midst of dealing with a humanitarian crisis due to the large number of Syrian refugees they are now hosting, some of whom have entered into domestic work. Therefore, as a second line of inquiry, we analyse the significance of ‘everyday crises’ in reference to acute humanitarian crises, where inequalities and abuse experienced by MDWs in the country can become exacerbated in a crisis situation.

Methodology

Research methodologies used included desk research, semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions. Information has been collected for this case study between February and July 2016.
Interviews and fieldwork were conducted in Lebanon (with the exception of one interview that was conducted by Skype) with a variety of stakeholders, including MDWs, government representatives, international organisations, civil society organisations (CSO), employers and experts. Interview partners were selected based on their expertise and responsibility regarding responses to the 2006 crisis and/or to MDWs in Lebanon.

Migrant Responses to Crisis

During the 2006 crisis, some MDWs became active in helping ‘trapped’ domestic workers from their own as well as from other countries. Some retell how they collaborated with their embassies and with Caritas, the only civil society organisation at the time working with MDWs, to help locate and evacuate those who wished to leave or who were abandoned by their employers. Notably, MDWs do not express significant impacts on their own lives or those of their community due to the 2006 crisis, and do not view the 2006 war as a crisis for themselves or the wider community of MDWs in Lebanon.

Nonetheless, the crisis was a turning point that directly or indirectly pushed MDWs to organise, coordinate and come together as a community. As a result they started to form associations and meet whenever and in whichever way possible, especially churches, to discuss their daily problems, raise awareness on their common plight and educate each other on their rights.

Although the recent Syrian refugee crisis has had minimal impact on the domestic work sector, when Syrians do enter the domestic work sector, their penetration of the market is considered temporary and irregular. They hence compete, if at all, with the community of ‘freelance’ (often irregular) migrant domestic workers rather than ‘live-ins’.

Although acute crisis events can have significant impacts on migrant domestic workers, MDWs rather understand and experience ‘crises’ more broadly, and occurring more regularly for them in their lives (i.e. recurring or ‘everyday crises’). Many feel that they are in a precarious situation, due to their challenging legal situation, with limited labour protections, their feeling of absolute reliance on their individual employer, and their lower socio-economic status in the country. In response, they often count on others in their national communities, as well as CSOs, for financial or legal support when the situation requires it. Such precarious situations can be compounded in a crisis situation, as was the case in 2006 with some of the ‘trapped’ MDWs, for example. On the other hand, protection, support and services offered to MDWs in regular times can also be instrumental in times of acute humanitarian crisis.

Institutional Responses

During the 2006 crisis, Lebanese and the country of origin authorities were caught unawares with regard to responding to the MDW population in the country, and most did not have a sufficient contingency plan yet in place. However, the General Directorate of General Security (GS) demonstrated flexibility and cooperation with Caritas in releasing and evacuating domestic workers from the country, especially irregular migrants held in the GS detention centre at the time. Caritas was also instrumental in assisting embassies in processing and evacuating their nationals.
In part as a response to the 2006 war, and reports of abuse of MDWs in the country, several countries of origin of MDWs have implemented emigration bans on their nationals migrating to Lebanon.

Although the intention of such bans was to protect their nationals from potential abuse or risky situations, in practice they have often led to increases in irregular migration (including trafficking) to Lebanon. Thus several countries have re-evaluated the use of such bans, as well as how best to respond to their irregular population in the country.

Civil society has emphasised the need for more efforts of Lebanese and country of origin authorities in protecting domestic workers’ rights and improving their situation in the country in general, including changes to how the system is organised through sponsors and recruitment agencies, which can lead to abuse. From the Lebanese government side, although there have been several initiatives aiming at improving responses to and protections of MDWs in the country, the lack of a functioning national government in recent years has reportedly in part stalled movement on this issue.

Policy Learning

The majority of stakeholders lacked awareness of any specific policy changes based on the 2006 crisis. Nonetheless, there have been a number of relevant changes in the period since that highlight the higher priority MDW issues have taken: the development of a national contingency plan for cases of acute humanitarian crises (although not including responses to migrants), the work of the InterMinisterial Steering Committee on domestic workers, and the prioritisation of domestic worker issues by the Human Rights Committee of Parliament.

The past 10 years have also been important in terms of strengthening of migrant associations – through meetings, events, and social networking activities – and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – recently established or engaging with MDW issues. Together they have taken the plight of MDWs to Lebanese society through awareness raising campaigns, as well as to government officials and institutions through legal and political advocacy. The recent focus of intergovernmental organisations, particular the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) work on domestic work in preparation for the Domestic Workers Convention (C189), have also placed this issue on the international and national stage.