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Economy & Labor , World

After Escaping Abuse in the Middle East, Domestic Workers’ Woes Are Far From Over in this Pandemic

by Louise DonovanMoraa Obiria September 3, 2020

This article was published in partnership with The Telegraph and Kenya’s Daily Nation.

What you need to know
  • The pandemic and resulting economic crises have led tens of thousands of migrant workers around the world to return to their home countries

Exactly 13 months after first landing in Beirut, Lebanon, former domestic worker Esenam sat on a flight back to Ghana, carrying just the clothes she wore on her back.

Her first employer had confiscated most of the possessions she brought over with her; the second raped and tortured her. In June, with help from This Is Lebanon, a human rights organisation fighting labour exploitation, the 29-year-old found her way onto a repatriation flight.

“I don’t regret the decision to return because my life matters,” she says via WhatsApp, from her home in Accra, the capital of Ghana. “But I shouldn’t have done it. I should have stayed.”

In Lebanon, Esenam, who asked to be identified by her middle name out of fear of reprisal from her former employer, earned £150 a month, which she wired home to her three children.

As the coronavirus ravaged Beirut and the Lebanese economy imploded, Esenam’s employers became more abusive. She, like many other domestic workers, chose to return home – many more have been deported involuntarily. 

The pandemic and resulting economic crises have led migrant workers around the world to return to their home countries in the tens of thousands.

Since mid-March, more than 30,000 Ethiopian workers have re-entered the country, according to the government. Domestic labourers – more than half of them women – across the Persian Gulf make up a significant chunk of those finding their way back, as well as those from other Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan.

They may arrive safely, but their problems aren’t solved once the plane lands. Many will return to no job, no savings and face potentially long-lasting psychological scars.

Millions of migrant workers in the Middle East

Each year, millions of migrant workers flock to the Middle East and to parts of Africa in search of better-paid work. In the Arab world, many end up exploited as housekeepers or nannies. Under the controversial sponsorship system, a domestic worker’s residency status is linked to their job.

In many cases, they cannot quit, move jobs or leave the country without their employer’s consent, which leaves women particularly vulnerable. Employers often demand long hours and provide minimal food. It’s also not unusual for them to be physically and sexually abusive. 

Some migrants have reported being mistreated and abused in detention centres in the countries where they were working, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 

Last week, a Telegraph investigation revealed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants who were slated for deportation have been left to rot in disease-ridden conditions in Saudi Arabia.

Once home, the trauma continues.

“Women have often been through a lot,” says Hugo Genest, of International Organization for Migration (IOM) Ethiopia. “Many of them are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder related to gender-based violence. If they have a baby as a result of rape, for instance, it can be particularly difficult.”

In Ethiopia, returnees are typically screened for vulnerability by IOM on arrival back in the country. Before the pandemic, those in need were provided with medical and counselling support at one of their transit centres. Now, upon arrival, migrants must go directly to one of the quarantine centres across the country for at least a week before they can go home. 

Once settled, women are asked to sleep alone in rooms in adherence with social distancing rules, but they often refuse or ask to share a bed with a female friend who travelled with them. “They don’t trust what can happen at night,” says Mr Genest.

In the quarantine centres, IOM is providing initial mental health care for returnees and offers referrals to local organisations for particularly vulnerable migrants, such as survivors of trafficking. But countrywide there is often minimal availability to much-needed psychosocial services, and women can slip through the cracks. Without support, returnees risk developing severe mental health issues, say rights groups.

“It’s a real problem,” adds Mr Genest. 

Increasing hostility amid COVID-19

Migrants also face increasing hostility as potential virus carriers. After being sexually harassed by her employer in Kuwait, 22-year-old Fetiya Sewinet left her job as a housekeeper – and the chance of recouping nine months of unpaid salary – in June. Back in Ethiopia, her family were happy to see her but were wary of her time spent in the quarantine centre – they feared she might infect them with the virus. 

Two months in, her neighbours are still suspicious and avoid her. “They think I’m sick,” she says over the phone. “I feel quite bitter about it.”

The economic stigma of returning without money or savings can be equally difficult. Families, and occasionally whole communities, will often help finance the original journey abroad for workers who in turn send money home.

“People think: How can you go to Dubai, the city of gold, and come back with nothing?” explains Paul Adhoch, the executive director of Trace Kenya, a Mombasa-based counter-trafficking NGO. “And most won’t tell anyone what they went through. If you fall into depression, you’re even more stigmatised because now you’re a burden to the family.”

In Kenya, there is a government-backed referral mechanism to help support victims of trafficking, yet few know it exists, say rights groups. In reality, the Migrant Workers Forum, an informal network made up of 15 civil society organisations, including Trace Kenya, often steps in to offer help where they can. Between them, they cover shelter, medical assistance, psychosocial services and information on safe migration for workers across the country.

Economic empowerment is important for proper reintegration, says Mr Adhoch, but lack of funding is a challenge. Most workers return without a job to countries already struggling with high levels of unemployment. Months into a pandemic, the chances of finding work look particularly bleak. 

“Most won’t tell anyone what they went through. If you fall into depression, you’re even more stigmatised because now you’re a burden to the family.”

Paul Adhoc, Trace Kenya

The lack of support can push some back into the arms of unscrupulous recruitment agencies.

Just weeks after arriving in Ghana, Esenam began planning her return to the Middle East. She’s in touch with an agent who says he can fly her to Dubai – if she can raise £765. So far, she has received no psychological support. “I fear,” she says, “but I need to go. Thanks to coronavirus, there is nothing left in Ghana. I’ll be okay this time because I’ll work as a cleaner in a restaurant – not a domestic worker.”

Where possible, Trace Kenya provides returnees with funds to keep them going in the short-term, or start a business in the longer-term. Of the 200 plus Kenyans assisted by the organisation last year, roughly 15 per cent received financial help, he says. 

In Ethiopia, IOM is ensuring migrants return home safely after the quarantine period. They do cover the cost of further medical care, psychosocial support and new business ventures but this is usually on a case by case basis, says Genest, and again budget dependent. 

“The fact is, it’s expensive,” says Phil Brewer, director of intelligence at Stop The Traffik. “Not every country can provide a high level of support to those who return. Even if the goodwill is there, it may be that system breaks down because the financial backing doesn’t exist to make a genuine difference.”

Left to figure it out by themselves

Many women are simply left to figure it out by themselves. Take Wanjuki, a 36-year-old Kenyan who until two weeks ago had been working 20-hour days as a domestic worker in Lebanon. Her employer frequently locked in her room for hours and was verbally abusive towards her.

After months of ignoring her pleas, her employer eventually covered the cost of the flight home. As she stepped off the plane in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, a sense of calm washed over her.

It felt good to have her freedom, says Wanuji, who also asked to be identified by her middle name out of fear of further stigma. But with just £380 in savings, two young children to support single-handedly and no job prospects, a looming sense of fear is slowly trickling into her newfound peace.

“I had dreams,” she says via phone from her home in Kirinyaga, a forest-filled county situated at the foot of Mount Kenya. “I thought I would go to Lebanon, buy a piece of land and build a small house for my kids – now my dreams have shattered.”

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