Foreign workers in Lebanon struggle to return home after losing jobs amid coronavirus restrictions and economic hardship
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By Ban Barkawi
AMMAN, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The fate of about 26 Filipino women housed in a crowded shelter under the care of the Philippine Embassy in Beirut has highlighted the plight of foreign workers in Lebanon struggling to return home after losing jobs, human rights groups said.
The women, most of whom were employed as domestic workers, have been confined since borders closed in late March to stem the spread of the coronavirus, said Bassam Al Kantar of the National Human Rights Commission of Lebanon.
Coronavirus restrictions coupled with an economic meltdown have led to unemployment and a shortage of foreign currency in Lebanon, with people ditching domestic help or workers fleeing to their embassies as their employers no longer pay them.
Human rights groups have raised concerns that the women at the Philippine Embassy, some of whom were working without legal documentation, are being held in over-crowded conditions although embassy staff have repeatedly denied mistreatment.
"These women have not seen the light of day for more than 40 days. It's like a place where people are deprived of their freedom," Kantar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Philippine Embassy and Lebanon's foreign affairs department declined to comment but said in an earlier statement that the allegations "do not depict an accurate description of the condition of the shelter and care given to the Filipinos".
In a social media video uploaded by the embassy on May 18 a pregnant shelter resident says "there is plenty of food daily as well as regular medical attention and medicine".
Thousands of undocumented foreign workers in Lebanon, mainly from Africa and Asia, are out of work and left stranded by border closures, with many unable to access state services and others subjected to abuse in confinement, according to Amnesty.
Lebanon is home to up to 250,000 foreign workers, some working illegally, who are employed under the country's kafala sponsorship system which binds them to one employer.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have blamed the kafala system and the inability to change jobs, which exists in many parts of the Middle East, for the abuse of migrant workers.
After visiting the shelter to investigate complaints about the treatment of the Filipino women, the National Human Rights Commission of Lebanon issued a report asking the embassy to enforce social distancing and requirements for outdoor time.
"We also asked them to ensure that the women have the right to seek help from us or any third party they choose - the right to access lawyers, to access doctors, to access mental health professionals," Kantar said.
Dima Haddad at the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Lebanon, said employers who can no longer afford wages have stopped paying workers, leading to pay dispute tensions.
She said the IOM was coordinating with U.N. agencies, Lebanese authorities and embassies to help stranded migrants.
"Even if someone wanted to end their contract what are their options? They can't go back home because of movement restrictions," Haddad said.
(Reporting by Ban Barkawi @banbarkawi; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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