Death of a housemaid in Lebanon sparks calls for action

Dechasa-Desisa's case has come to symbolise the severity of the problem of abuse and lack of protection for domestic workers.

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BEIRUT // Moaning and crying out, Alem Dechasa-Desisa was dragged by her arm along a Beirut street. Two men then attempted to bundle the mother of two into a black BMW before grabbing her by the hair.

The 33-year-old Ethiopian had moved to Lebanon late last year to work as a housemaid and send money to her family back home.

She strangled herself with bedsheets a few days after a video of the assault was broadcast on Lebanese television.

Her death last month and the attack by a man working for a recruitment agency have sparked outrage in Lebanon and again focused the spotlight on the treatment of domestic workers here.

The case has also lead to renewed calls for the Lebanese government to pass legislation to protect the country's estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers.

The treatment is considered so bad that some governments - including the Philippines and Ethiopia - have banned workers from seeking employment in Lebanon. Thousands still make it to the country, often travelling through third countries.

Dechasa-Desisa's case prompted a United Nations expert on slavery this week to call for Lebanese authorities to investigate her death.

She left her home in Addis Ababa last year, looking for work. When she arrived in Beirut in December through a Lebanese recruitment agency, she struggled. She worked briefly for two families and was let go by both.

The recruitment agents reportedly tried to send her back to Ethiopia, but she refused - she needed to repay her debts to the recruitment agency and send part of her income home.

On February 24, the day of the assault, which was captured on video by an unknown bystander, the recruitment agents are believed to have been trying to leave her at the Ethiopian consulate, claiming she was suffering from psychological problems and needed to be deported.

Consulate officials reportedly told the men that she should be taken to hospital.

Police arrived shortly after the video was shot and took Dechasa-Desisa to a detention centre. She was later transferred to a hospital after apparently suffering a nervous breakdown, before being moved to a psychiatric facility where she took her own life on March 14.

After the release and wide circulation of the video, Lebanon's labour and justice ministries launched an investigation. It is not clear whether charges will be filed against Ali Mahfouz, one of the men identified in the video and the brother of the head of the recruitment agency that brought Dechasa-Desisa to Lebanon.

There were reports that the ill-treatment caught on film was not the first such incident of abuse that she had been subjected to.

Dechasa-Desisa's case has come to symbolise the severity of the problem of abuse and lack of protection for domestic workers in Lebanon, which has driven some to take their own lives. A 2008 Human Rights Watch study found that, on average, one migrant domestic worker died from unnatural causes, including suicide, every week.

"Like many people around the world I watched the video of the physical abuse of Alem Dechasa on a Beirut street," said Gulnara Shahinian, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery.

"I strongly urge the Lebanese authorities to carry out a full investigation into the circumstances leading to her death."

During a visit to Lebanon in October last year, Ms Shahinian called on the Lebanese government to pass legislation to protect the country's migrant domestic workers.

While not all migrant domestic workers in Lebanon suffer ill-treatment, many are at risk of exploitation. Lebanon's labour law does not cover migrant domestic workers, who are sponsored by their employers.

Some end up living in conditions of servitude and campaigners and rights groups report cases of abuse, non-payment of wages, confiscation of passports, forced confinement and little or no time off.

Efforts to introduce legislation that would provide greater protection for migrant workers, has failed to gain traction due to a lack of political will and changes of government.

Human Rights Watch is among several groups to call for Lebanese authorities to act quickly to improve conditions, as well as to investigate the Dechasa-Desisa case.

Warning: This video of the assault contains disturbing and graphic content.

"The Lebanese authorities only opened an investigation because they found themselves in the media spotlight," Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said.

"The government urgently needs to address the root causes that are driving so many migrant domestic workers to despair.

"Alem Dechasa-Desisa's death is an outrage on two levels - the violent treatment she endured and the absence of safeguards that could have prevented this tragedy."

He called for the government to adopt protections for domestic workers and bring down their death toll in the country.