Ethiopian migrants forced to return after being abandoned by Lebanese employers

Hundreds arrive back in Addis Ababa after paying hefty sums to leave a country beset by economic and political turmoil

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Mahlet Tadesse, a 20-year-old domestic worker is one of hundreds of Ethiopian migrants forced to return home from Lebanon after being dumped by her employer.

She, along with 654 others, paid a hefty sum of $680 (Dh2497) to fly back to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, from Beirut after camping out at the Ethiopian embassy. The cost is more than four times her monthly salary.

Many Ethiopian migrant workers, mostly young women, cannot cover the expense to fly home and now face the prospect of unemployment in a country beset by economic and political turmoil. But she was one of the lucky ones.

"I was in Lebanon for two years. I worked day in and day out and, on what was supposed to have been my off days, my employers would transport me to their friends and have me work with little break," she told The National.

“There was no extra pay and in the last months, I was promised a payment and nothing was forthcoming until I was driven to the embassy and left there to fend for myself.”

According to the International Organisation of Migration Ethiopia, since May of this year, 658 people from Lebanon have arrived back in Ethiopia. However, more are believed to have returned either on their own or without communication with the UN agency.

"We have temporarily suspended all operations to bring these destitute people to Ethiopia because of Covid-19. We plan to start the operation soon and we plan to prioritise those with children," the Ethiopian director general for consular affairs Yohannes Shode told The National.

Ethiopian migrant workers in Lebanon are subject to a system called kafala, which governs their entry, residence and work in Lebanon. The system requires that every migrant worker has a sponsor, who is also supposed to be one’s employer.

The system also gives employers a right to control the movement of the domestic worker, who cannot be hired by another employer without getting the consent of their current one, or risk losing their migrant status and facing detention and deportation.

Many who lived in Lebanon under the system have returned to Ethiopia complaining of abuse and ill treatment.

In 2012, the story of Alem Dechasa, a 33-year-old domestic worker gained the attention of the United Nations special rapporteur after she was videotaped being beaten and dragged into a car by her employer. She was later found dead.

Such incidents propelled the Ethiopian government to put a ban on domestic workers travelling to the Middle East in 2013. It lifted the ban in 2018 after putting in place a system to safeguard the workers, and also partly because of the profound importance of remittances to the Ethiopian economy.

Almaz Beyene, 23, from the northern Ethiopian city of Gonder, was the first to sign up after the ban was lifted. She remains stranded in Beirut after she was also brought to the embassy last month with only a bag full of clothes.

“I have no money and I sleep with strangers on the street not knowing whenever I will ever go home. I feel vulnerable and I cry myself to sleep and it's humiliating for me that I cannot even afford to pay for my flight ticket and that I live on the charity of others,” Ms Beyene said, describing herself as “zombie-like”.

“On top of that, I still have a debt to pay, a loan my parents borrowed from others for an employment agency that brought me here.”

Ethiopian State Minister of Business and Diaspora Affairs, Tsion Teklu, said the government has been proactive in helping citizens, but is also mindful of the need to limit international movement during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We are now obtaining detailed information on each [stranded] individual to be shared with ministries for proper security check, citizenship confirmation, health check, quarantine, transportation and reintegration," she said.

"The Ethiopian government repatriated 956 irregular migrants from Lebanon for whom the process was started before Covid.  The Ethiopian government fully covered the full cost of two chartered Ethiopian Airlines flights, the 15 days quarantine and transportation to our citizen's last destination and is now working with [the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs] in reintegrating them."

She added there was a three-month plan in place for Ethiopians in Lebanon and said the consulate was assisting those in need.

Yet there have been several efforts by Ethiopian citizens to help, including one started and led by Banchi Yemer, an Ethiopian-Canadian philanthropist based in Montreal who has managed to raise 70,000 Canadian dollars to help afford food and medicine to the migrants.