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Migrant Worker Repression and Solidarity in Lebanon

In the weeks and months following the al-Qa` bombings that occurred near the Lebanese-Syrian border on 27 June 2016, the Lebanese government has intensified its repressive measures against Syrian refugees. This has taken place in the form of illegal curfews, political hate speech, and arbitrary arrests. In the week following the attacks, checkpoints were established all over the country, mainly targeting Syrian refugees, although other undocumented migrant workers were arrested as well. According to the Lebanese Army twitter account, more than six hundred Syrians were arrested in the first three days alone. In January 2015, most Syrian nationals residing in Lebanon became subject to new rules that resemble​ the ​kafala (sponsorship) system, tying their residency to a “pledge of responsibility” on the part of their employer (with minor exceptions). Ever since, the majority of Syrians present in Lebanon (those who cannot get a tourist or student visa, for instance, or those whose relatives did not obtain sponsorship) have fallen out of legal status.

Denial of status is a tool the Lebanese government consistently uses to further control marginalized populations in the territory. Prior to these recent events, migrant workers as well as refugees across the country were already the target of a noticeable increase in police violence, albeit one that largely escaped media attention. From late April through May 2016, these communities witnessed waves of arrests and police raids at their homes, workplaces, and public gathering spaces. This targeting affected both “legal” and undocumented migrant workers and refugees, particularly migrant women who cannot live legally outside of their sponsor’s house and who are thus suspect simply for being in public space. In the words of an Ethiopian woman who has been working in Lebanon for more than fifteen years: “In all my time here, I have never seen a year like this year.”

This article focuses on this past wave of repression against migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, and their ongoing strategies of resistance. We tackle three aspects of this state violence: the gendered nature of the arrests and their role in producing state legitimacy, the criminalization of migrant women through restrictions on status, and the networks of solidarity that have developed around the `Adliyya Detention Center in Beirut.[1] 

Raids, Gender, and the Reproduction of State Legitimacy

At approximately six am on 10 May 2016, police forces raided a dilapidated building in Tahouita jointly occupied by female migrant workers and male and female Syrian refugees. Residents later described the landlord as known for using tactics of intimidation and threatening those delayed in rent payments with police visits, as he reputedly had personal connections with members of the police. On the morning of the raid, he personally pointed out to police those rooms occupied by migrant workers, offering precise details in order to facilitate the arrests. Police burst into private residential spaces, breaking down multiple doors and leaving the personal belongings of detainees abandoned and exposed to theft.

Given that there were regular police patrols in the neighborhood, it was clear police had long known about the building and yet had - until this moment - taken no action to investigate its occupancy. Why the sudden decision to conduct this raid? The Tahouita raid, as it came to be known, was accompanied by the establishment of temporary checkpoints in Jal al-Dib, Jdayda, and elsewhere in and around Beirut starting in late April. These were set up to stop those deemed suspicious and to examine the legality of their documents. In some cases, female migrant workers with legal residency cards, or documents indicating the ongoing renewal of such documents, were arrested upon mere suspicion. For example, a series of raids on a single shop in the area of Dora, regularly frequented by women of color, led to the arrest and subsequent deportation of both women without papers and those working there legally, as well as customers with legal documents.

While General Security (al-amn al-`am)[2] made no public comment on the matter, the dramatic nature of the arrests offer clues as to the fragile nature of state legitimacy in Lebanon and its constant reproduction of foreigners as threats, which in turn serves to consolidate the role of the state as protector. While Syrian men for instance are regularly blamed for the deteriorating security situation (as evidenced by the numerous curfews implemented by municipalities in the aftermath of the al-Qa`eda bombings), migrant domestic workers are often portrayed as a threat to (Lebanese) public morality.

The raids conducted during the months of April and May occurred in the context of two high-profile events in Lebanon: the exposure by the Internal Security Forces (ISF)[3] of a decade-old human trafficking ring of young Syrian women in Ma`meltayn in late March, and municipal elections in May. Following the revelation of a dense network that facilitated the capture, confinement, torture, and forced sexual activity of seventy-five women at Ma`meltayn’s Chez Maurice and Silver hotels last March, security forces began investigating thirteen additional “super nightclubs” (a euphemism for brothel) in the Jounieh area under allegations of inadequate health controls. When three were later shut down, LBCI reported that authorities had discovered that fifty young women were being used as “sex slaves” at those venues.The week prior, police also reported freeing two young Syrian women from “forced prostitution” in Khaldeh while further arresting “women workers” of diverse nationalities. On 16 April, fourteen women were arrested by the ISF claiming to have captured a “sex ring” in Sad al-Bouchrieh. The women, with Kenyan, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Cameroonian nationalities, were accused of using the social networking service Badoo to facilitate their work. On the same day, six Kenyan women were arrested in Burj Hammoud under the same charges.

The ISF further stated that police had raided video poker venues in Dbayeh, Jounieh, Antelias, and Burj Hammoud after the rumors of similar so-called “prostitution networks.” In these raids, seventeen women of different nationalities were arrested for allegedly living in Lebanon without residency documents, with three others arrested on alleged drug charges. According to The Daily Star, “The raid comes in light of the police crackdown against brothels and prostitution rings in the country.”

Is there no distinction between sex workers who use social media applications like Badoo, women who attend super-nightclubs, and organized human trafficking and torture backed by corrupt Lebanese officials? These media reports blur the distinction between human trafficking and sex work, using the term “prostitution” to refer to both forced sexual exploitation, and the exchange of sexual activity for individual economic benefit. The verbal confusion mirrors the confusion maintained by the state through a series of repressive actions that tend to shift from one target to another: human traffickers and marginalized sex workers. After the media exposure of the systematic brutality in Ma`meltayn, it is the responsibility of both state and civil society to focus attention on human traffickers as well as the probable high-level connections that allowed them to operate in Lebanon with impunity. 

Why is it that instead, both ISF and General Security (GS) appear to be targeting women rumored by neighbors to be engaging in sex work, particularly those who are non-Lebanese and also most marginalized? Moreover, after years of state corruption and neglect with regard to trafficking rings (that are likely still numerous), has the need to take public action resulted in the scapegoating of female migrant workers and refugees throughout the country? This is a familiar pattern in a context where deepening economic inequality and hardship as well as safety concerns are regularly blamed on Syrian refugees.

In fact, arrests of female migrant workers that had no connection to the post-Ma`meltayn crackdown on brothels and trafficking rings continued to be carried out under the pretext of “prostitution”. In late April, three women were stopped on the seaside road near Antelias. The first woman was taken directly to `Adliyya. Two others, who were walking together, were transported to Baabda for investigation under the charges of “prostitution” and “drug-use” before being transferred to `Adliyya after the charges were proven to be baseless. More recently, a raid in Zuqaq al-Blat targeted another large residential building where Ethiopian women and Syrian and Sudanese men lived together, after an alleged neighbor’s complaint that homes were being used to facilitate sex work. Men and women were taken directly to `Adliyya and most were deported in the weeks that followed.

This profusion of accusations highlights a specific form of discrimination that female migrant workers have long faced. V., a young Cameroonian woman reflected on an experience she once had in a minivan: “I was sitting behind a Lebanese woman who wore a thong, and below it you could also see her skin. I was already feeling [that my tank top] was too much for an African woman [to wear]. If I had dressed like her in this country, I would already be in jail [for prostitution].” Female migrant workers are criminalized for their forms of dress, places of residence, and public presence: basically, for their refusal to be reduced exclusively to a certain function and imposed image of a domestic worker. That is, a domestic worker whose sexuality will not disrupt her productivity, as dictated by the interest of both employers and “respectable” recruitment agencies, key links in a chain of exploitation.

Being “Illegal”

The recent spate of arrests has become a source of increasing concern among migrant workers, both male and female. Even legal residents are afraid of being captured when visiting friends or running daily errands. Yet the events documented above, occurring over the brief period of a single month, only emphasize the broader nature of arbitrary control over the mobility and agency of migrants and refugees in Lebanon. While legal migrants were targeted during this particular wave of arrests, detention and deportation are the most common measures taken against migrant workers who are systematically driven underground by the same kafala system that governs their presence in Lebanon.

In order to escape an exploitative employer or change one’s place of employment, migrant workers under the kafala system are forced to become illegal. In the case of female migrant workers, who usually face confinement in and/or to the private domestic spaces (and other limitations to freedom of movement through passport confiscation), fleeing abuse or simply choosing to live more freely also entails the loss of legal status and heightens the condition of precarity.

If extraordinary waves of arrests seem to aim at different goals, the ordinary, regular ones are in some way necessary to protect the interests of employers (i.e. to dissuade migrant domestic workers from “fleeing” their contract) as well as the interests of licensed recruitment offices (who are disadvantaged when freelance workers offer their services independently). NGOs who seek to reform rather than abolish the kafala system often fail to recognize that it fundamentally operates not only to control workers at an individual level, but also to exclude (i.e. expel) workers who refuse to live within the confines of its many constraints. At its core, the kafala system must keep the door open to the constant criminalization of migrant workers and refugees.

“Nobody wants to stay illegal by choice”, noted R. a migrant community leader, comparing the conditions of criminal prisons in Lebanon (such as those in Roumieh or Verdun) to those in `Adliyya detention center. “Why is illegal residency treated as if it’s worse than committing a crime? I know so many women who have the money to renew their papers and who are looking for someone who would accept to sponsor them. But it isn’t easy, especially these days.” 

There is No `Adl in `Adliyya

The spate of arrests before the al-Qa` bombings also occurred at a time when the General Security (GS) detention center in `Adliyya (technically a temporary holding facility) was already over capacity, as documented by numerous human rights organizations and journalists' investigations. In order to speed up deportations, some migrant workers have informed us that GS purchased their departure tickets (a costly expenditure usually borne by the detainee, as most sponsors are regularly exempted from this legal obligation) and then rapidly deported them. According to some former detainees who were deported, the waiver of these fees briefly resulted in the number of detainees being cut almost in half, thus making room for the further detention of additional migrants and refugees. 

Whenever they are stopped for random inspection by authorities and discovered to be lacking legal residence permits, undocumented migrant workers are taken to the `Adliyya  detention center. For those undocumented workers who decide to return to their home countries, including in cases of sickness or family death, passing through `Adliyya is the only way out of Lebanon. The prospect of indefinite detention in `Adliyya is made even worse by the power given to the sponsor to prevent the detainee from traveling. If a police complaint (for instance, of theft) has been filed against a migrant worker, they cannot leave the country until the complaint has been resolved.

In the case of migrant domestic workers who live in their employer’s household, and whose passports are almost always illegally confiscated by the employer, such complaints are very frequent. It has become a widely known practice amongst employers to “retrieve the investment” a sponsor has made in hiring a migrant. Many testimonies indicate that police advise sponsors to report women for theft and not just for “running away” (farar) in order to enable the worker’s eventual prosecution. Since workers also have little access to legal justice and are rarely defended by lawyers, complaints of theft initiate a tedious and expensive process that is most quickly resolved by paying the sponsor an often-exorbitant sum in exchange for their passports. What this amounts to is extortion. Migrant workers do not owe any payment to their employers, since all fees paid by sponsors only profit the recruitment agencies. The sponsorship system is being used to “sell back” the same documents employers have unlawfully stolen from their rightful owners.

Visits to `Adliyya have further revealed the dehumanizing conditions of the so-called detention center, where migrants are almost-always held far beyond the legal limit. Overcrowded cells, deprivation from light and movement, unhealthy food, disastrous hygiene, and insufficient medical care have not been addressed despite repeated calls from organizations including the Lebanese Center for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch. Visiting hours are limited to Tuesday and Thursday mornings, an extremely inconvenient time when family and friends with legal permits are often unavailable due to work obligations. Visitors arrive starting at six am, although visiting hours are from eight am to two pm. Indeed, one quickly learns that the tickets for the visits are arbitrarily distributed anytime between six-thirty and nine am. Visitors are asked to stand in line beneath the `Adliyya bridge. The average waiting time is three (often useless) hours, whatever the weather, standing in the street without access to bathrooms or seating. Many mothers have to carry their young children all the way through. The tickets themselves are limited and although allegedly distributed on the basis of time of arrival, are often preferentially distributed based on nationality, race and appearance (depending on the officer's whims).

Although the visits are in no way limited to family members, the officer in charge gives himself the right to ask if this is a family visit and what relationship the visitor has to the detainee, while intimidating the migrants in line and insulting them if their answer doesn't suit him or if they do not form a perfect line. While those who have waited in vain leave, exhausted and disappointed, those who received tickets move in groups of twenty towards the dirty parking lot, which has been turned into a detention center. After another wait in line, the visits are limited to approximately ten minutes of contact behind two floor-to-ceiling iron walls with tiny holes through which loved ones can barely see each other, let alone touch. Visits are conducted in a collective space, leaving no opportunity for individual intimacy; one must strain to hear conversation over the joint voices of the group.

A Call for Solidarity

In spite of these unbearable visiting conditions that are meant to dissuade any contact with detainees, migrant workers and refugees constantly demonstrate the extent of their ongoing resistance and solidarity. Those who have legal papers will visit the families and friends of those who do not. A Syrian woman in her sixties will ask a younger Sri Lankan woman to try and get some news about the former's son, as she cannot do so herself. Depending on the detainees’ needs as expressed in the visits, members of the community communicate with distant family members, take care of personal debts, sort out personal belongings that are sometimes sold to the benefit of the detainee, and finally raise important funds to purchase tickets back home. The community also gathers resources to ensure access to necessities that the Lebanese state fails to provide. These include bringing food, water, clothes, money, and more.

“I’m exhausted,” confides M., a migrant domestic worker in her forties. “How can I tell you, I can’t even get some sleep anymore, I’m always thinking: “She’s about to travel”, I should go to the airport to give her some luggage. They never tell you when the flight will be except on the spot, when she’s allowed to make her last phone call. So I wait at the airport until two am, because the police says midnight but sometimes they only arrive at one-thirty [am], and the morning after, I wake up at five [am] to work….” These solidarity practices are a form of political work that adds to the overload migrant workers have to bear.

As activists and researchers of different nationalities residing in Lebanon, we would like to express our solidarity with migrant and refugee communities at this critical time, and call for political involvement alongside their networks of resistance. The same forces responsible for the current social, political, and economic impasse in Lebanon are the ones that must be held accountable for the lives they have shattered among marginalized communities. We refuse to let the state continue to endanger these communities in order to strengthen a legitimacy its actions continuously undermine. It is by building connections across imposed divisions that we can fight back on the basis of shared knowledge, and begin to imagine alternate futures.

[1]  As of this writing, the `Adliyya detention center was shut down and replaced by a nearby center in Tahouita. 

[2]  General Security (GS), is a branch of the MIistry of Interior in charge of ensuring national security, mainly through gathering intelligence and monitoring the media. GS also controls foreigners' residency in Lebanon and issues travel documents to Lebanese citizens. The multiple security forces in Lebanon (including the Lebanese Armed Forces, associated with the Ministry of Defense) are a legacy of the Frenc mandate.

[3] The ISF (Internal Security Forces or in Arabic: Qiwa al-Amn al-Dakhili) are the national police and security force of Lebanon, associated with the Ministry of Interior. ISF’s main mission is to maintain “public order.”

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