Anonymized missing person flyer that circulated online in the aftermath of the explosion. The man was found alive and well. August 2020. (The Public Source)

Anonymized missing person flyer that circulated online in the aftermath of the explosion. The man was found alive and well. August 2020. (The Public Source)

 

Life and Death on the Margins: On the Double Trauma of Migrant Workers

Editor’s Note: Unsourced information in this article was related to members of the Anti-Racism Movement or documented and verified by ARM. This article was produced in collaboration with The Public Source.



“A girl was locked up in the home of her sponsor” when the reverberations of a massive blast reached that home, located a few kilometers from the Port of Beirut. 

“The sponsor wasn’t home, and had locked the door and [left] the girl behind. So when the explosion happened, the girl was injured,” and trapped. 

This is a secondary account that Dominique, a domestic worker from the African continent active in the community (who requested we use a pseudonym to protect her privacy), relayed to the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a grassroots migrant-centered feminist collective.

Dominique suspects that the domestic worker was Cameroonian, but nearly a year after the chaos of the blast, she could not be certain of the womans identity.

The worker sent pleas for help on a WhatsApp community group. Dominique was one of many recipients of these messages, and says that “her compatriots called people to go see [and rescue] her where she was in Achrafieh.” With their help, she managed to escape the crumbling apartment.

The Public Source could not corroborate this information because it was not possible to reach the survivor. People who knew her told Dominique that after the explosion, she abruptly fled the country, deeply traumatized.

The harrowing story that Dominique recounts is a chilling manifestation of the dangers that the kafala system senselessly creates.
The harrowing story that Dominique recounts is a chilling manifestation of the dangers that the kafala system senselessly creates. 

Banchi Yimer, activist and founder of Egna Legna, a migrant-led organization, describes kafala as “a prison sentence for two years and three months, the duration of a domestic worker’s contract, without a crime.” Migrant domestic workers sustain Lebanese households; in return, they are isolated, locked up, and rendered invisible —  just like the state criminalizes, imprisons, and severs undesired subjects from society.

For migrant domestic workers, the effects of the explosion on August 4 cannot be separated from the everyday realities of racism and kafala — a deadly configuration that determines their experiences during and after a catastrophic event, deciding who would or would not be found, rescued, treated, or left for dead. 

That day was also the tip of a crashing iceberg. On the eve of the massacre, many migrant domestic workers were already jobless, penniless, and homeless, as a result of Lebanons economic crisis, one of the worst globally since 1850.

Living Under Crisis and Kafala

Among the nearly 7 million nationals, migrants, refugees, and others residing in Lebanon, migrant domestic workers far exceed the official estimate of 250,000 women. They come from over a dozen African and South Asian countries, primarily Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines to work here. 

The sponsorship system that governs their legal residency and employment status is a core pillar of the postwar economy in Lebanon and the region, and makes the employer both the worker’s sponsor and guardian. Tying the worker to the whims, moods, and authority of the employer, kafala establishes a dynamic akin to slavery but with a cover of employment, consent, and civility. In addition to egregious labor violations, many workers report being subjected to sexual and physical violence, isolation, and captivity.

[T]he effects of the explosion cannot be separated from the everyday realities of racism and kafala — a deadly configuration that determines who would or would not be found, rescued, treated, or left for dead.
In 2020, the year of compounded catastrophes in Lebanon, the situation of migrant domestic workers became even more perilous. ARM received 850 cases of labor violations, nearly double the number in 2019, most of which required legal intervention. 

Coronavirus lockdowns established a new reality for domestic workers, who were now stuck with their sponsors indoors around the clock. In addition to working day and night, 65 women reached out to ARM because they were subjected to life-threatening violence. 

Moreover, as their employers shifted to remote work, monopolizing an already slow and unstable connection to the internet, many domestic workers were stripped of their right to communicate with their families.

Employers have also used the financial collapse as a pretext not to pay wages. Migrant domestic workers reported 143 cases of withheld wages to ARM and 145 cases of a new type of labor violation: abandonment on the street, often without back wages, passports, or even belongings. 

This cruel phenomenon renders workers undocumented and exposes them to the threat of incarceration and deportation at the hands of predatory state agencies. In 45 cases, the workers were kicked out of, or coerced into leaving, their sponsors’ homes, left to fend for themselves without income or housing in the middle of a pandemic and economic collapse.

In this way, in the months leading up to August 4, many migrant domestic workers were already subsisting on a meager income, if they had one to begin with, enduring housing insecurity, mounting evictions, and homelessness. And because these hardships were so widespread, safe havens and networks that had taken decades to build were now disappearing.

August 4 and Its Aftermath 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to process the collective and individual trauma in the wake of August 4. Blood trails on the street, glass crackling under injured feet, exhausting searches for the missing, the forgotten — all return, time and again, to shatter any sense of safety. 

The explosion indiscriminately injured, dispossessed, and claimed the lives of Lebanese and migrants, especially port workers. Yet rescue and relief efforts were uneven because of racism and kafala.

Migrant workers who survived the blast describe living through a double trauma: first the shock of the blast, then brazen indifference as to whether they live or die. 

Migrant workers who survived the blast describe living through a double trauma: first the shock of the blast, then brazen indifference as to whether they live or die.
Doris, a mother from Ghana who came to Lebanon to provide for her daughter, describes how after the initial daze of the explosion, she found herself “standing in a pool of [her] own blood,” as her Lebanese employers rushed their injured daughter to the hospital and left her behind. 

“Every part of my body was bleeding. My eyes were swollen, and I couldn't see through one of them,” she told The Public Source. “They took themselves to the hospital without taking me with them. I was lying there bleeding on the side of the road before an ambulance picked me up by chance... I dont know what would have happened if the ambulance didn’t pass by at that moment.” 

At the scene of the explosion, some Lebanese crudely exhibited aggression and racism toward migrant workers, some of whom reported to ARM that several humanitarian assistance groups refused to give them relief supplies. 

While some were told, “you are not Lebanese, get out, there is no aid for you,” others were hypocritically celebrated as heroes after home surveillance footage went viral,  capturing a migrant domestic worker lunging to shield a toddler with her body in the moment of the explosion.

Far from exceptional, this heart-warming moment is part of the taken-for-granted and often unpaid everyday care labor that migrant domestic workers fulfill on behalf of their employers.

Against these forms of explicit and implicit racism, together with ARM, three migrant-led organizations — Egna Legna, Mesewat, and This Is Lebanon — quickly mobilized rescue efforts, once again showing up where the state routinely fails. 

For weeks after the explosion, the organizations contacted hospitals, poring over unofficial tallies in search of non-Lebanese victims. 

The broader community of migrant workers also circulated the names and pictures of their missing loved ones on social media platforms and in the streets. They created multiple Instagram accounts that served as a database during search-and-rescue operations. 

“Little by little, we [Egna Legna] found them,” Yimer told The Public Source. “Some of them were in hospitals; some lost their houses and were on the street, or sheltering in someone’s place; some lost their phones and their belongings but later communicated with their families; some of them were in a coma.” Yimer confirms that, “On [her] list everyone is alive, some are injured, but we found them.” 

Many migrant domestic workers are forced to renounce their papers to escape abusive work environments, do not have family, friends, community, and access to telecommunications services, and are unknown in the neighborhoods where they work.
Other search operations met more tragic fates. From the list of 52 mostly-Syrian migrant workers that ARM compiled, only two survived, two were never found, and 48 died. 

During these sustained search operations, ARM confronted the carceral logic of kafala which made it hard and at times impossible to look for and identify missing persons. 

Many migrant domestic workers are forced to renounce their papers to escape abusive work environments, do not have family, friends, community, and access to telecommunications services, and are unknown in the neighborhoods where they work. As such, tools and resources to track them down in emergencies are scarce, making rescue efforts exceptionally challenging.

To this day, the real death toll of the explosion is unknown, and the official tally of the deceased and the missing remains incomplete. Non-Lebanese victims are primarily the ones excluded from the official figure of 191 killed, which the Ministry of Public Health last updated in September 2020. The Public Source estimates at least 252 people may have been killed by the blast.

Untold stories may be buried in the debris of the explosion, especially in Karantina, the port-adjacent, devastated working-class neighborhood that has long been a refuge for migrants and refugees because of affordable communal rent. 

Some of the victims of the blast, especially from this area, have not been counted among the injured, missing, or dead.

On August 4, at 6:07pm, Amine, who works around the port in the Lebanese capital, happened to be far from his workplace. Some of his friends were not as lucky.

“Some of them were on their day off,” he told the aid and humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide, “and what we do on our day off is we go there [close to the port] and hang out at the bar, act like customers. But some of them lost their lives [that day].”

He has five friends who are “not on the official victims’ list.”

Moreover, from the 48 migrant workers on ARM’s list who died, 28 were never included in the official “list of martyrs.”

These absences reflect the position of migrant workers, asylum seekers, and refugees in the eyes of the Lebanese state. They are systematically dehumanized, in peace and stability, in crisis and tragedy, in life and death.

The government’s response to the blast fell very short, as was expected. The army was tasked with food distribution and the Ministry of Health issued a circular to treat the injured for free. 

Although the governmental decree did not discriminate against and exclude the non-Lebanese according to Youmna Makhlouf, a lawyer and researcher with the Legal Agenda, in practice migrant workers were denied access both to food and free treatment.

Untold stories may be buried in the debris of the explosion, especially in Karantina, the port-adjacent, devastated working-class neighborhood that has long been a refuge for migrants and refugees because of affordable communal rent.

An Ethiopian worker who was injured in the blast (and prefers to remain anonymous) revealed to Concern Worldwide how she used her paltry income to cover medical bills. “The first doctor I went to charged me L.L. 50,000 just to see me, then I got an X-ray and paid L.L. 35,000, and then I paid the orthopedist L.L. 150,000... all from my salary.”

ARM learned of a migrant worker (prefers to remain anonymous) who sustained injuries during the arduous clean-up effort after the blast, and did not receive any support. Her employer ignored her calls and her injury did not fall within the parameters of the ministry’s circular.  

Sara, an Ethiopian activist for migrant rights, explained to ARM how racism excluded migrant workers from food distribution. 

“The army came into my house three times,” she said. “The first time, when I told them that I didn’t work but actually lived here, they didn’t give me anything. The second time, they just looked at me and left without... giv[ing] me anything just because I am black. The third time they came, they ended up leaving me a box because my Lebanese landlord asked them to.” 

“Though I don’t need the food box,” she added, “I think of the migrant workers who really need it.”

Dominique (who recounted the story of the worker who was locked up in her sponsors home during the blast) shared with ARM how she tried to get a food box for a friend when the army was distributing them in her neighborhood.

“I went there and asked, ‘can I have a box?’ They asked, ‘for whom?,’ so I replied, ‘for me,’ and they said, ‘for you, no, you can’t have it, if it’s for madam, OK,’ so I responded, ‘it’s for madam.’ And then it was like an interrogation, ‘what's her name? Where does she live? In what building?’ I told them everything, as if I were before the police, being interrogated. Then they gave me a box and a man accompanied me here, climbed the stairs with me, until he reached the kitchen, to make sure it’s for madam!”

She added, “truly, we, foreigners, if it weren’t for the small help of NGOs, anyway we were forgotten, no-one remembered us. Sharing [food boxes] happened among them [Lebanese], we and the freelancers have nothing in it; the foreign concierges have nothing in it, sometimes there were bosses who took boxes that they gave to us but that’s not everybody.”

Besides discriminatory food distribution, fear struck again a day after the explosion, when the Lebanese government declared a two-week state of emergency, which compounded the risks for migrant workers. Already considered “illegal” residents for leaving abusive work environments, they now endured the anxiety of imminent arrest, anytime and anywhere, imprisonment, and deportation. 

Volunteers in the clean-up effort reported to ARM that policemen were stopping people on the streets to check their IDs, a nightmare for any migrant worker, especially “freelancers,” in kafala-governed Lebanon. 

Worried about their safety in a deadly, uninhabitable country, migrant domestic workers sought immediate repatriation. From July to October 2020, they organized sustained sit-ins before their embassies, notably the Kenyan, Cameroonian, and Sudanese, to expedite their return. 

Egna Legna, This Is Lebanon, ARM, and two individual initiatives complemented their organizing through urgent response mechanisms that included fundraising for travel tickets and supporting paperwork processing.

ARM provided flight tickets, PCR and transportation costs, counselling, legal support, and mental and physical health services. In the year following the explosion, many migrant domestic workers have left Lebanon; ARM alone has assisted with the repatriation of 304 women. 

Returning home, however, has never been straightforward for migrant domestic workers under kafala, not least in these perilous times. Freelancers who left the homes of their sponsors had no access to their passports, and many are still stuck here. Others, after weeks or months of preparations, could not board the plane because their PCR tests returned positive. 

Many more have had to face unnecessary delays through neglectful “honorary consulates” run by wealthy Lebanese businessmen. Kenyan domestic workers, for instance, reported coercion into sex work to cover inflated repatriation fees and “a culture of exploitation and extortion at the Kenyan consulate in Lebanon.

Some migrant workers also feel conflicted about leaving, because a lot is at stake. For those who have started families in Lebanon, prohibitive travel expenses are only secondary to separation the greatest cost to bear.

Some faced circumstances that may have prevented them from registering their children, which leaves them without a passport. In other cases, when parents hail from different countries, the children would have to leave one parent for the other, a tragic loss to the family.

Sometimes, returning home is nothing short of gambling with death. 

Facing dire straits after the explosion, David, a migrant worker from Nigeria, told ARM that he thought about going back but could not because he feared for his life. 

“I was in Dawra when the explosion happened. I injured my leg and had wounds on my body. My landlord told me that I should leave my house because he wanted to fix it, but I know he wanted to increase rent and give it to someone else. The place I worked for got badly damaged; the entire roof fell off. They fired everyone except Lebanese and Armenian workers.”

Though out of work and unable to sustain himself, migrating elsewhere was not an option. “I still haven’t been able to find work because of my leg,” he told ARM in July, “I live with friends in Nabaa. I get a lot of insults because I can’t contribute to the bills. I thought of going back home, but it is bloody in Nigeria. It is not safe for me.” 

This dreadful crisis urges us to reassess the urgent need to embrace and support, instead of hate and segregate, half of the residents of this country who have sustained us for decades.
Thousands of migrant workers have been trapped in Lebanon, with no choice but to bear the humanitarian, economic, and housing crisis along with everyone else, but on worse terms. Relying only on migrant-led and migrant-centered initiatives to survive, some have been pushed into homelessness, others into severe mental health distress.

This dreadful crisis urges us to reassess the urgent need to embrace and support, instead of hate and segregate, half of the residents of this country who have sustained us for decades. We cannot continue to exploit migrant workers under the mantle of kafala and other systemic forms of injustice.

If we dream of better days for Lebanon, we owe the same to everyone who lives here. We have an obligation to rise above normalizing daily rotten practices and discontinue the ease with which misery is created. We have to topple the kafala system, and design cleaner systems of decent migration and work opportunities for those who seek them.

We must stand strong by the survivors of kafala even more so after the explosion and during this crisis fight, dream, and build together, not as spectators or saviors but as equals.