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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 December 2018

Lebanon closes case of Ethiopian maid who jumped from employers' home

Story of Lensa Lilesa and her famous employer highlighted problems with Lebanon’s kafala system

Migrant domestic workers carry placards with slogans such as: 'We want our passports' and flags during a demonstration in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 3, 2015. Wael Hamzeh / EPA
Migrant domestic workers carry placards with slogans such as: 'We want our passports' and flags during a demonstration in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 3, 2015. Wael Hamzeh / EPA

Lebanon’s national intelligence agency has said it found no evidence of human trafficking after investigating the case of a domestic worker who accused her well-known employers of abuse before recanting on national television.

"It was concluded that there is no trafficking," a spokesman for the General Security Directorate, which oversees the entry and stays of foreigners residing in Lebanon, said on Thursday.

The finding ends the state's inquiry into the case of Lensa Lilesa, 20, who broke both legs when she either jumped or fell from the second storey of her employers’ home in March. She had come to Lebanon from Ethiopia about six months earlier to work for the family of Eleanor Ajami, who owns the fashion house Eleanore Couture.

The case drew attention to Lebanon’s kafala, or sponsorship, system, which critics say is tantamount to slavery because of the power it gives employers over domestic workers.

While in hospital, Ms Lilesa was visited by an aunt who also works in Lebanon and had become suspicious of her niece's employment situation. Ms Lilesa’s parents had contacted the aunt and asked her to get in touch with their daughter because they had not heard from her since she left Ethiopia.

At the hospital, the aunt recorded Ms Lilesa detailing physical abuse by her employers. She said she had jumped from the balcony to escape and wished to return to Ethiopia.

Human rights groups and the International Labour Organisation say the case underscores Lebanon’s lack of protection for its estimated 200,000-300,000 foreign domestic workers, the majority of whom come from Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Domestic workers are not covered under Lebanon's labour laws and are not guaranteed payment for their work, days off, or even the right to leave their employer's home. Freedom of movement, including confiscation of passports, is a major concern.

The video of Ms Lilesa describing her abuse was posted on Facebook by activists from This is Lebanon, a group that advocates for workers’ rights, after which a small demonstration was organised outside Eleanor Couture’s office in Beirut’s suburbs.

But in early April, Ms Ajami’s daughter and a lawyer for the family appeared with Ms Lilesa on a talk show on Lebanese channel Al Jadeed. Looking weak and strapped to a hospital bed that was wheeled into the studio, Ms Lilesa told the show’s host in halting English that she had lied about the abuse, but reiterated her desire to return to Ethiopia.

Two days later, This is Lebanon released an interview with Ms Lilesa’s aunt in which she said her niece had been pressured by her employers into recanting her story.

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Ms Lilesa is now back at her employers’ house after being discharged from hospital, since her stay in Lebanon is tied directly to her employer. Her aunt and others have said that Ms Lilesa had not been able to speak freely to anyone as all visits are in the presence of her employers.

Ms Ajami, the owner of Eleanor Couture, did not return calls and messages requesting comment.

“We receive complaints of abuse on a pretty regular basis,” said Bassam Khawaja, the Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch in Beirut.

“The kafala system gives Lebanese sponsors incredible power,” Mr Khawaja said. “In this specific case, we’re concerned about coercion, and also that if the initial claims are true, she was being very badly abused and is now back at this family’s house. Her legal status in Lebanon is tied to this family — it would be incredibly difficult for her to bring a lawsuit.”

Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF), which conducted an initial investigation, said doctors had found no signs that Ms Lilesa had been abused and their investigation determined that she had been lying in order to return to Ethiopia.

“There is another worker who has been in the same house for five years and she denied all this history and all this story — two doctors also saw her and their report said there was no abuse,” an ISF spokesman said.

However, Mr Khawaja said there was reason to be sceptical of the ISF investigation.

“Unfortunately we’ve been documenting this for a long time — ISF and the judiciary don’t really take these cases seriously, they make pro-forma investigations,” he said.

“What has been shown so far is that this is a possible case of coercion,” said Zeina Mezher, a migration specialist with the ILO in Beirut who also said that abuse is common.

“There are issues of abuse — verbal, emotional, forbidding them from communicating with their families,” Ms Mezher said.

“When it comes to suicide — you take it a step further. What happens to a person who is locked in a house 365 days a year?” Ms Mezher asked. Some employers “don’t want the domestic worker to have a life. There is a report of suicide almost weekly”.

Lebanon lags behind other countries in the region that have recently passed stricter laws to protect migrant workers and domestic labour in particular, said Rothna Bergam, HRW’s researcher for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

“In 2008, Jordan was the first to include domestic workers in their labour laws,” Ms Bergam said. “Then you’ve seen the rest of the Gulf countries follow suit. Kuwait has limits to working hours and a weekly rest day.”

“In the last year, Qatar and the UAE have passed specific legislation similar to what Kuwait has done,” she said.

“They all vary in what they provide and have some problematic provisions that do not align them to the ILO convention on domestic workers.”