Caught in the middle: Migrant workers still trafficked into war-torn Syria
Dozens of migrant domestic workers are being trafficked over the Lebanese border into Syria every month, despite the war raging there and official bans by Syria and several major source countries against bringing in new labor, officials from the Indonesian and Philippine embassies said Friday.
The officials’ comments were made during a meeting with experts from the International Labor Organization, who agreed that the trafficking of women into Syria, often by force or deception, is an extreme example of what can happen when labor recruitment agencies are not held accountable.
The global recruitment network that brings women from Asia and Africa to work as maids and nannies in Arab countries is sprawling and adhoc in nature. Some of the players in these networks operate legally, taking advantage of lax legislation, while others work underground, blatantly auctioning off work visas to desperate women who believe they will be better able to provide for their families from abroad.
“These recruiters go to the poorest areas. Not the poorer areas, the poorest,” said Dennis Briones, Vice Consul in the Philippine Embassy. He said his government experienced a “reality check” when the uprising in Syria broke out and it had to try and evacuate 17,000 Philippines, the vast majority of whom were working there illegally.
“We couldn’t find them,” said Briones. “We literally had to go door to door.”
Briones said some 3,000 still remain in Syria, with more being brought in from Lebanon every month.
The Philippines is just one of several countries including Ethiopia, Nepal and Indonesia that have banned their citizens from working in unskilled domestic service in Lebanon over the past several years.
The Lebanese government has not respected these bans, however, and continues to register workers who arrive by indirect means or on tourist visas. In fact, the number of Filipinos entering Lebanon has risen since the ban was passed.
“[The ban] has driven the process underground,” said Azfar Khan, a senior migration specialist at the ILO.
Khan said improving coordination between host and source countries is vital to cracking down on illegal recruitment, which compromises worker rights and discourages women from seeking help if they are being abused by their employer.
“One of the critical issues has to do with the recruitment blame game going on,” explained Khan. “The Lebanese authorities say ‘we don’t cheat them, they are being cheated in their countries’ and the source countries say ‘no, it is the way the private employment companies operate.’”
“It’s a whole process in which both source and host country are complicit,” he added.
In some cases, simple protocols such as verifying workers with the Labor Ministry in their home country before granting them work papers would reduce trafficking.
But a lack of political will on both sides makes lobbying for stricter regulation an uphill battle. Host countries want cheap labor, and many poor countries have unofficial quotas for sending workers abroad.
Although the purpose of Friday’s meeting was to field concerns from source countries, representatives from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, each of which has thousands of citizens working in Lebanon, were notably absent from the meeting.
Another obstacle to effective advocacy, Khan said, is the lack of accurate data. Estimates place the number of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon between 200,000 and 250,000, but General Security has refused to hand over any official data, citing security reasons.
Ideally, advocates say they would like to see the Lebanese labor law amended to include migrant domestic workers. In the meantime, the ILO and partner groups are pushing piecemeal legislation to address the specific, pressing concerns.
Two pieces of draft legislation drawn up with the help of the ILO would introduce a standardized contract for domestic workers and regulate private recruitment agencies. The draft laws were reportedly still under study by the government when it resigned last month.