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Taking Steps to End Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers

The central issue within Lebanon and many other Middle Eastern countries is that of the “sponsorship system,” which ties migrant domestic workers to their employers.
Migrant domestic workers are also not protected by Lebanese labor laws and, as a result, become vulnerable to abuse.

As if this is not bad enough, employers are required – under contractual agreement with the agencies responsible for “procuring” domestic workers – to retain their employees’ passports.

This naturally results in a situation in which migrant domestic workers who escape from abusive situations become automatically criminalized.

And, if caught, they potentially face additional punishment, rather than protection, at the hands of the Lebanese authorities.

The isolated nature of domestic labor, coupled with the systemic neglect of migrant workers’ rights on such a large scale, is something that should be far more shocking than the individual case of the Saudi princess I mentioned in my previous column. Though I certainly hope this case continues to heighten awareness about the suffering of many of the world’s most vulnerable.

During the week of the Middle East Conference (MEC), the U.S. State Department published their annual and highly respected “Trafficking in Persons” report.

Lebanon, for the second year in a row, was designated a Tier 2 (watch list) country, which means the number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing, and there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year.

Evidence of significant efforts to combat human trafficking would include:

â—     Increased investigations, prosecution and convictions of trafficking crimes

â—     Increased assistance to victims

â—     Decreasing evidence of complicity in severe forms of trafficking by government officials

â—     Other demonstrations of significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards as based on commitments by the country to take additional steps over the next year

While Lebanon is making efforts to improve legislation on human trafficking – I recently attended a national level meeting exploring legislative plans on a range of trafficking-related topics – it is clear there is still a long way to go.

The Syrian refugee crisis is also impacting the nature and scale of human trafficking activity.

So, what else can be done to change the plights of countless marginalized women in isolated homes around the region?

Raising awareness and developing a prophetic voice for justice are key elements. And there are numerous organizations seeking to work in this area, such as KAFA and Stop the Traffick.

KAFA, along with other bodies, is also promoting and campaigning for a change from the sponsorship model, which encourages such awful abuses. They suggest the following general guidelines:

â—     Increase labor mobility of migrant domestic workers

â—     Decouple the employer/employee relationship

â—     Improve the recruitment process, regulate private agencies more strictly and decrease recruitment fees

â—     Decrease the number and vulnerability of migrants in irregular status

â—     Ensure social protections and legal redress

â—     Establish a national coordinating body and build the capacity of the National Employment Office

Two influential world leaders have also offered a prophetic voice about the need to address human trafficking.

In September 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama stated: “It ought to concern every person because it’s a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community because it tears at the social fabric. It ought to concern every business because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime.”

“I’m talking about the injustice,” he added, “the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name – modern slavery.”

And, Pope Francis, earlier this year, said, “I ask my brothers and sisters in faith, and all men and women of good will for a decisive choice to combat trafficking in persons, which include ‘slave labor’.”

Christians were at the forefront of the abolishment of the slave trade. It seems that there needs to be a renewed call by people of faith today to rise up and make a stand against inhumane practices that directly confront the dignity given to all people by God – regardless of race, sex, socioeconomic status or any other category within which we artificially categorize our human sisters and brothers.

We pray for justice to prevail, not only for the Kenyan woman and her Saudi princess employer, but also for the countless other women caught in a system of bondage and slavery in the Middle East and North Africa region today.

Let’s see if we can make a difference.

Arthur Brown is the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on human trafficking. Brown’s first column is available here.