Authoritarian Tech

Ethiopia’s internet shutdown is silencing migrant workers stranded in Lebanon

Caught between an economic crisis and a news blackout, this vulnerable community is struggling to be heard

On Friday July 3, Ethiopian activists planned to gather outside their national consulate in Beirut in protest against the kafala system — a form of employment sponsorship that operates across the Middle East and has been blamed for widespread cases of abuse. But, with Lebanon’s economic collapse dominating the domestic media and an online blackout in force at home, organizers postponed the event.

Ethiopia’s government blocked internet access across the country on June 30. The move followed a wave of deadly protests, sparked by the killing of the popular singer Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, whose music focused on the rights of the nation’s Oromo people. 

The ongoing shutdown, which applies to cellular and home networks, has been widely condemned by humanitarian groups as a “tool to muzzle activism” within the nation. But it is also denying a voice to citizens facing intolerable hardships abroad.

“If we held the protest while the internet was down, the Ethiopian government would not see it, so it would really be pointless,” said Banchi Yimer, the founder of the domestic workers rights organization Egna Legna Besidet. 

In Lebanon, some 250,000 domestic workers — the majority of whom are women from Ethiopia — are registered under kafala. As such, their legal status and residency is tied to their employers, meaning that they cannot leave or change jobs at will. Workers are also excluded from protections provided by national labor laws. 

Domestic staff are often forced to work long hours without breaks, and denied rest days and holidays. Their passports are frequently confiscated by employers and racial abuse is widely reported. In a number of cases, women have been beaten, starved and sexually assaulted.

According to statistics released by Lebanon’s General Security agency in 2017, an average of two domestic workers die in the country each week, often as a result of attempted escapes or suicide.

“Kafala is slavery, it’s as simple as that,” said Hareg, who declined to give her full name. Originally from Ethiopia, she has worked in Lebanon as a maid for nine years. 

Lebanon’s economic crisis, which had been deepening for months, has been sent into overdrive by the global Covid-19 outbreak. The national currency has plummeted to less than a quarter of its official pegged value against the U.S. dollar, and the cost of basic goods has rocketed. Domestic workers have become an unaffordable luxury, and thousands have had their salaries slashed, gone unpaid or lost their jobs entirely. 

Ethiopian maids gather in front of the main entrance of the Ethiopian Consulate in the Hazmiyeh town, south-east of Beirut after they were kicked out from their work.
Photo by Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images

Since early June, dozens of Ethiopian women, abandoned by employers, have been forced to sleep on the sidewalk in front of their national consulate. Many were left without money, belongings or passports. 

“Every hour, another taxi would pull up and dump a woman on the street,” said Hareg, who has been visiting to help new arrivals. 

The Ethiopian consulate was, at first, slow to act. Recently, it set up a shelter for some of these women. Others are living in cramped, shared housing, or in refuges run by the Catholic relief organization Caritas Internationalis.  

Another Canada-based activist organization, founded by former migrant workers, is doing what it can to help. This Is Lebanon was established in 2017, to draw attention to the plight of foreign domestic workers within the country. Part of its strategy is the naming and shaming of abusive employers by posting their photographs and personal details on a dedicated Facebook page.  

The group relies on high public visibility and a large social media following, both to achieve its goals and as a form of protection. 

“Employers aren’t going to do anything when they know 82,000 people are watching,” said one volunteer, who used the pseudonym Patricia. 

Despite a largely positive reception, This Is Lebanon’s methods have come in for significant criticism. Facebook commenters frequently make racist claims about domestic workers and accuse the group of fabricating its stories. 

“It doesn’t matter how much evidence we produce,” Patricia said, “there will always be people who say the domestic worker is a liar.” 

Some have also accused This Is Lebanon of being funded by Israel  — a charge frequently made against individuals and organizations who challenge Lebanon’s status quo.  

The group has responded by posting screenshots of recent donations, accompanied by the caption: “Our critics like to say we are funded by Zionists. We are mostly funded by beautiful, warm-hearted Lebanese.”

Over the past nine months of economic meltdown, the number of people contacting This Is Lebanon has doubled.

But, while the caseload has increased, its capacity to act has diminished. Donations have slowed to a trickle, and the group can no longer pressure employers into paying salaries, given that many of them are also on the edge of destitution. 

“Now, we are advising women to be patient and to endure until the airport opens fully, and to negotiate their own release, even if it means forfeiting unpaid salary,” Patricia explained. 

When Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport closed as part of a three-and-a-half-month coronavirus lockdown, thousands of workers from nations including Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Kenya and the Philippines found themselves stuck with no money, no job and nowhere to go. 

The Philippines and Ghana managed to organize repatriation flights during the quarantine. Now that a reduced schedule is operating from Beirut, Kenya is making arrangements for small groups of citizens to be taken home by commercial airlines. 

Repeated attempts were made to contact the Ethiopian consulate for this article. Telephone calls were immediately cut off and emails went unanswered.

“Quite simply, nobody cares about us,” Yimer said. “We are invisible to the Lebanese authorities and the Ethiopian consulate.”

Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images

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Emily Lewis

Emily Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon.