Kenyan maids camp outside their consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, demanding to be sent home after claiming they have been abused by employers (Photo: Antonia Cundy/i)
The kafala system, which operates in countries across the Middle East and Gulf region, is widely denounced by human rights’ groups as being prone to abuses modern slavery.
When Christine Okeya arrived at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri Airport last summer, she hoped to become the main breadwinner for the family she had left behind in Kenya. But when she leaves Lebanon this year, she will return home with less than she had when she came: no salary, no passport, and no belongings.
All she has gained is a dark, two-inch scar across her forearm, a reminder of the deep burn she received at the hands of the “madame” she worked for, and one of a series of abuses that led her to leave her employment as a live-in maid and spend weeks sleeping in the cold outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut, demanding she be sent home.
“I just want to go home as soon as possible,” said Ms Okeya, 20, who has been responsible for her father and siblings since her mother died four years ago. “My father will be disappointed, it’s very hard, but I just have to go home.”
The women come to Lebanon as domestic workers through the kafala system, which ties their legal status in the country to their employer. They are excluded from the basic protections offered by Lebanon’s labour law, and if they leave their employer, lose their right to live and work in the country, becoming “illegal” migrants.
“They cannot resign from their job without the consent of their employer,” said Zeina Mezher, of the International Labour Organisation. “In addition, if the migrant worker finds herself in a vulnerable situation, there is no access to justice for her.”
The women see protest as their only choice. As snowstorms hit the hills above Beirut, with nighttime temperatures in the capital dropping to three degrees, they slept below the steps to the consulate’s office, with only an iron grille gate separating them from the street. Huddled together on mattresses and sleeping bags, with masks tucked into their hats or hoods, they talk quietly, or use the WiFi from the café next door to scroll social media, watch videos, and listen to music.
The kafala system, which operates in countries across the Middle East and Gulf region, is widely denounced by human rights’ groups as being prone to abuses and modern slavery.
Ms Okeya’s employers, for example, withheld her $200 monthly salary for four months, and demanded she hand over her phone. When she refused, there was a struggle, and her “madame” burnt her with a cake pan she had just taken out of the oven. Later that day, the madame’s son also beat her.
Other women outside the consulate told i that they were lied to about the work they would be doing, beaten, not fed, sexually assaulted, and made to work when they were sick. “You work from 6am to 5pm without food, and then again until 10pm, every day,” said Yvonne Karembu, who was made to sleep in a wooden outhouse. “The cold comes in, I was sick with a fever, but when you say you are ill they say you are pretending.”
The Kenyan women’s recent protest for repatriation extends beyond the group who have been camping outside the consulate. The International Organization for Migration, the UN agency that is now arranging their return home, told i that 91 women in total are being assisted, with some currently in shelters in Beirut and others lodging with friends or supporters. Some fled their employers many months ago.
According to the UN, there are roughly 250,000 migrant domestic workers living in Lebanon, the majority of whom are from Ethiopia, the Philippines and other Asian countries. Since 2019, their already vulnerable situation has been deeply exacerbated by the country’s economic crisis. Last summer, Ethiopian domestic workers lined the street outside their consulate, dumped there by “madames” no longer able to afford them.
Many of the Kenyan women blame the Lebanese and Kenyan recruitment agents for bringing them into this unstable situation under false pretences.
When Mercy Njeri arrived in October, she expected to be paid $200 per month for housework; instead, she was told to nurse an incontinent old woman, for $100 per month. When she complained to her agent, she was turned out onto the streets without her passport, money, or belongings.
“They treat us like animals, they view us as money, not people,” Ms Njeri said.
While there have been reforms to Middle Eastern and Gulf countries’ kafala systems in recent years, rights groups warn that the changes are incremental, and that legislation does not always result in enforcement.
“There are alternatives to kafala, which is not to have individuals sponsor the migrants but actually have the ministry of labour sponsor them,” said Mathieu Luciano, head of IOM’s Lebanon office. But, he admits that abolishing kafala in Lebanon is “a long way off”.
The protest outside the consulate has resulted in 23 women being relocated by the Kenyan government to an apartment, where they wait to hear news of their repatriation. Eight women have so far been flown home, with more scheduled to fly next week.
The women are also protesting for reforms at their consulate, which is currently run by honorary consuls, two Lebanese men who do not speak Swahili. In 2020, after a report by CNN detailed domestic workers’ claims of physical assault and extortion by the consuls, the Kenyan government said it would send officials to investigate. Nearly two years later, no one has arrived.
Since they were moved into the apartment, each day, the women continue to gather outside the consulate, bearing placards calling for justice and true Kenyan representatives. “We don’t have a consulate in Lebanon, we have a recruitment agency,” one reads.
“Going home is not a solution, the consulate office must go, we have no more faith in them,” said Olive Mwangi, who has lived in Lebanon for 10 years and has been supporting the group of women since she became aware of their situation on social media. Neither of the consuls responded to i’s requests for comment.
Meanwhile, others are apprehensive of what they will face when they do return home. “Sometimes when I’m calling my children and telling them, ‘Mummy’s coming home,’ I turn away and cry,” said Anita Gitau, who, like many of the women, came to Lebanon to provide for her young family.
“People think you have been abroad to have a good life for your babies, but I am going back home with no money,” she said. “It will be good to see them, you will hug and cry and face them with a smile, but as a mother, the shame is hitting you inside.”