In what can be termed a modern-day slave trade, Sri Lankan women arrive in Lebanon only to find themselves abused, imprisoned, raped, hungry, defenseless and alone. Siriani P., 27, came to Beirut in a desperate attempt to save her family from a life of poverty. Just ten months later, however, she grabbed the first opportunity to run away from her employers.
Clambering into a taxi, Siriani frantically sought help. “Embassy, Sri Lankan embassy,” she told the driver, using the little English she knew. But after searching in vain for her embassy, Siriani ended up wandering the streets of Hamra in tears. With one eye swollen and a bump rising on her forehead, she rubbed the red marks on her neck, signs that “Madam” had, on many occasions, pulled Siriani’s hair and banged her head against the wall. Clasping her well-worn dress, she sobbed as she recalled her mistress stripping her down to her underwear and beating her thin body. Siriani’s tied hands prevented her from defending herself. The pain became even more unbearable when she was thrown to the floor and trod on repeatedly. “I wanted to throw myself from the ninth floor! I’d rather die than go on like this.”
Siriani’s weight dropped dramatically after she came to Lebanon. Awakened daily at 4 am, she was forbidden to eat before 5 pm. Even then, she was only allowed to drink unpurified tap water with her meager meals while the family drank bottled water. Locked inside all day, she was unable to search for assistance.
Sri Lankan women are usually recruited to work overseas by local agents who promise riches in exchange for jobs abroad. Those who respond to the offer are then required to pay a fee to the local agent — up to $500, an overwhelming sum for most. Many borrow the money, incurring a debt, which, in the future, may prevent them from returning to their country if their Lebanese employer denies them their wages.
At the other end of the labor migration chain are various Lebanese agencies constituting an unregulated — and highly lucrative — industry. At a cost ranging from $1,500 to $3,000, a Lebanese family can “buy” a Sri Lankan maid whose monthly salary will range from $100 to $150. The agency draws up a contract committing the maid to her employer for two or three years. Since the contract and negotiations are in Arabic, the Sri Lankan woman usually has little understanding of what she has committed herself to. The contract stipulates that the agency’s responsibility for the woman expires after three months. The employer and the employee must then resolve any problems. If a dissatisfied employer brings the maid back to the agency, she will likely be beaten to render her “obedient.”
After the initial three-month period, employers become fully responsible for the servant. If the woman leaves, the employer perceives it as an investment loss. Consequently, many employers lock their Sri Lankan maids in the house and control their freedom of movement by confiscating their passports. “Keeping anyone locked up is imprisonment,” protests lawyer Mirella Abdel Sater. “It is illegal to force people to work against their will or to take away their passports. A maid is free to leave. If there is a breach of contract, then negotiations can be undertaken. But employers have absolutely no right to detain her against her will.”
During a UN review of human rights abuses in April 1998, committee members “noted with concern the difficulties faced by many foreign workers in Lebanon whose passports were confiscated by their employers. The committee recommends that the state party should take effective measures to protect the rights of these foreign workers by preventing such confiscation and by providing an accessible and effective remedy for the recovery of passports.”
Many abused women feel they have no choice but to escape. “‘Running away’ evokes the era of slavery,” said Abdel Sater. “You leave your job, but you run away only when enslaved.” Since all of the runaways have left their passports behind with their employers, they must obtain new ones. But Lebanese authorities demand $900 for every new passport — a mandatory fee for processing travel documents for non-Lebanese who lose their passports while in the country.
If they can somehow scrape this amount together, some women may still be forbidden to leave, since many employers report runaway maids to the police as thieves in order to track them down. “The employer cannot report that their maid has run away. It is not illegal for her to do so,” Abdel Sater explained, “so they tell the police she stole something.” Consequently, her name and picture are distributed to law enforcement authorities throughout the country. An arrest warrant is issued and the women are usually apprehended at the airport.
The police have not been helpful to Sri Lankan maids escaping abusive employers. Many police officers have demonstrated blatant racism when it comes to protecting foreign women seeking their assistance. “I had a case in which a Sri Lankan maid was raped by her employer,” said Abdel Sater. “I immediately sent her to the police. When she got there, however, she learned that they already had a warrant for her arrest because her employer had accused her of theft. Supposedly, the accusation had been registered at the police station hours before she arrived. It was impossible for her employer to have registered it that early, though. I suspect he bribed the police to change the time of the report to make it appear that he had submitted his accusation first.”
Abdel Sater indicated that she knew of many cases of police abuse. “Worse yet, bruised and beaten woman are usually returned to their employers. One maid I represented fled to the police bleeding. They dutifully took her back and told her employer to stop beating her. No sooner had the police left than the employer repeatedly banged the woman’s head against the wall. In desperation, the maid threw herself off the balcony but survived. Neighbors found her and called me. The woman now suffers from memory loss and a fractured skull. The police had no right to return her — it was their duty to protect her!”
In August 1998, a Filipina housekeeper was arrested after her French employer called the police to report a theft of a gold medallion. Linda Sacbibit, 42, charged that as soon as she entered the police interrogation room, two policemen tied her wrists and ankles together, forcing her into the fetal position. A long piece of wood was inserted behind her knees, then placed across the top of two chairs and Sacbibit hung head down from it “like a roasted chicken,” as she recounted her experience tearfully through metal bars at Baabda prison. “They began beating the soles of my feet with a cable of some sort. I don’t know how much time passed but it was a long time. Then they untied me and made me stand in a pot of water. Soon after, they tied me up and suspended me again,” she said. “They slapped my face and they beat my body with the wire repeatedly. I don’t remember more because I fainted.”
When Sacbibit woke up, she saw small black spots on her chest and arms but couldn’t remember how they got there. “The men then ordered me to wash my face and arms because they were a little bloody from the rope’s friction. I had to hold my arms up to show them there was no blood left. Then they made me run all around the room. They kept yelling at me to confess that I stole the medallion and gave it to my boyfriend. I told them I didn’t steal anything and that I don’t have a boyfriend,” she said. “But they kept calling me a liar and continued beating me.”
The Philippines embassy, however, refused to comment on Sacbibit’s story. “The Philippines embassy helps all its citizens,” was the only answer offered by the embassy’s consular assistant, Berth Salvador, when pressed for information.
“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that many people are being beaten during investigations,” said Roland Tawq, Sacbibit’s lawyer. “These police interrogations present the biggest problems for lawyers. They beat our clients and force them to confess. But once the accused reaches court, he or she will say something completely different.”
For lawyer Mirella Abdel Sater, who volunteers her time and expertise to help foreign maids, the hundreds of cases she faces can be overwhelming. “Sometimes I feel so helpless,” she admitted. “I tell people what the law requires, and they tell me: ‘Get out of here, you and your law!’.” At one point, she decided to call abusive employers and ask them to stop the beatings. “In return, they threatened me,” she said. “They told me: ‘We know important people and you’d better watch out’. Once the police even called me in for questioning! Since when do you question lawyers representing someone?”
Attempting to punish employers through their servants proved futile. Once rested and secure again, abused women never want to follow through with lawsuits. “I always plead with them to go through with it, but they always back down,” Abdel Sater said. “When it comes time to go to court, they just don’t want to face their employers.”
Even if they did, Abdel Sater’s work would still be sabotaged. “When we do file a lawsuit, especially if it involves high officials, it is filed so as to ensure an acquittal,” she said. “Legally, I can’t do anything. My job has now become to increase public awareness: Don’t beat them; don’t rape them. Everyone in Lebanon has someone powerful behind him or her, though. The law can’t reach them. I end up being the one who’s threatened.”
Every Sunday, hundreds of Sri Lankans and Filipinos gather at a Catholic church in Beirut to hear the mass in their native languages. This is the first stop for most runaways seeking support and guidance. Occasionally, Lebanese members of the church’s congregation will employ a runaway.
Complaints from abused women prompted the Sri Lankan government to open an embassy in Lebanon in 1998. A year later, the Sri Lankan community admits that the embassy has facilitated the replacement of lost passports. Yet other than opening a halfway house where runaway Sri Lankan women can find shelter, it has been unable to stop the mistreatment, rape, passport confiscation and illegal imprisonment Sri Lankan women suffer at the hands of their Lebanese employers.
“An embassy will do nothing in a country where the law does not protect people,” Beiruti human rights advocate Tina Naccash complained. “What can an embassy do if the Lebanese government, the legal system and the police don’t want to protect these women?”
Even Lebanon’s leading universities have been slow to take a stand against violence occurring on their campuses. Two years ago, when a professor at the American University of Beirut allegedly kicked his Sri Lankan servant 17 times, the administration took no action to suspend him. Earlier, the vice president of the Lebanese American University had prevented the publication of a report on the abuse of foreign workers in its quarterly women’s studies journal, al-Ra’ida, on the grounds that it was “too controversial.” “If a university cannot talk about controversy, who can?” asked Naccash.
The only way to help foreign workers, Naccash believes, is through official diplomatic representatives who can intervene on behalf of such women. Naccash also calls for the Lebanese labor ministry to open a bureau of domestic workers’ affairs that would ensure that all relevant laws are applied strictly to everyone on Lebanese soil.
Until then, women like Malika K., 27, who spends all her free time searching for her younger sister, Damica, are on their own. The agency that brought Damica to Lebanon from Sri Lanka has refused to say where the young woman was placed. In the 11 months since Damica arrived in Beirut, she has written only one letter to her distraught mother. In it, she described beatings, hunger and imprisonment. Malika fears, not without reason, that her sister may now be dead.