Archive | November, 2008

Lebanon ‘worst place’ for Palestinian refugees

29 Nov

Country suffers from ‘complete lack of integration’
By Dalila Mahdawi
Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lebanon 'worst place' for Palestinian refugees
 

 

BEIRUT: Lebanon may not host the largest population of Palestinian refugees but it “is the most difficult place to be a Palestinian refugee.” That is the opinion of Zara Sejberg, Child Protection project manager at Save the Children Sweden, at least.  Speaking ahead of the UN-designated “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” on Saturday.

Sejberg, who works to promote the rights of Lebanese and Palestinian refugee children and who has travelled widely throughout the Middle East, told The Daily Star that over 409,700 Palestinians living in squalid, overcrowded camps in Lebanon suffered from a “complete lack of integration,” inadequate services, harmful stereotypes, and discriminatory laws. Over 3000 Palestinians in Lebanon do not even have formal documentation, meaning they are not recognized by either the Lebanese state or UNRWA.

Refugees in Lebanon suffer from the highest levels of abject poverty of all Palestinian  refugees, according to UNRWA. In accordance with the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, all refugees must be given the right to work and to own property. But Palestinians in Lebanon do not enjoy those rights. Nor are they entitled to state health care. Their status has long been an issue of bitter dispute between Lebanese political parties, many of whom argue that Palestinians are temporary guests and vehemently oppose the possibility of Palestinian naturalization.

In an address to the UN General Assembly Tuesday to mark the day of solidarity with the Palestinians, Lebanese Ambassador to the UN Nawwaf Salem said Lebanon “strictly opposes any sort of naturalization of the Palestinians, a matter which has been repeatedly emphasized by [President] Michel Sleiman.” Naturalization was “not feasible because it threatened the Lebanese state and identity, as well as the identity of Palestinian refugees,” Salem added.

For Sejberg, the debate over naturalization was pointless. The majority of Palestinians themselves have no interest in becoming Lebanese. Indeed, as recently as last Wednesday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki told An-Nahar newspaper that the naturalization of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon would not be tolerated. “I don’t even know why we’re bothering to talk about naturalization when that’s not the issue,” said Sejberg. “The issue is how to improve the life of these people who have been in Lebanon’s backyard since 1948.”

But according to former Ambassador Khalil Makkawi, president of the Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee (LPDC), which since 2005 has been working on the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon under the guise of the Cabinet, responsibility for the Palestinians lay “not [with] Lebanon but UNRWA and the international community.”

“I think it’s time to take a more proactive stance,” Sejberg said, suggesting Lebanon used UNRWA’s mandate over the Palestinians as a “convenient” tool to absolve itself of responsibility toward them.

Haifa Jammal, Human Rights and Advocacy program coordinator at Norwegian People’s Aid, which works with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, likewise said that the Lebanese government was not working hard enough to improve the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. “The government took the initiative to establish the LPDC, but that committee has not done nearly enough. Regarding the right of Palestinians to work or to own property, there has been nothing done yet.”

During his UN address, Salem said Lebanon’s “very limited resources” meant it was unable to adequately provide for Palestinian refugees. “I don’t think the problem is one of money,” said Jammal. “The Palestinians are asking for the right to work and not for aid. If they were allowed to work and to buy property, the Palestinians would be contributing to the Lebanese economy” and helping to build up the very resources Salem complained his country lacked, Jammal added.

According to Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, what the Lebanese government needed to do was “to show the political will and a true desire to improve the living conditions of Palestinians.” Some of the means to do that did not require financing, he said. “Lifting restrictions on employment opportunities and on construction permits require no expense. For the things that do require money, like the rebuilding of Nahr al-Bared, the international community needs to support Lebanon.” Houry was referring to the Palestinian refugee camp destroyed when the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) engaged militant group Fatah al-Islam between May and September 2007. The fighting killed 400 people, including 169 LAF soldiers and an unverified number of Palestinian camp residents.

When questioned Friday on LPDC efforts to change laws that discriminated against Palestinian refugees, Makkawi answered simply: “We are working on it.”

NGO launches campaign against abuse of women

26 Nov

NGO launches campaign against abuse of women
By Dalila Mahdawi

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

 

BEIRUT: Abeer’s story will resonate with thousands of women in Lebanon and millions around the world. Literally trapped in an abusive marriage for 30 years, she was only able to divorce her husband in 2002 after a law giving women the right to file for divorce came into force in Jordan, where she lived.

Her daughter Nisreen, who lives in Beirut, told The Daily Star that although her mother worked as a school teacher, her husband forbade her from accessing her money. “When we moved, my father took all her savings and bought a house in a very remote area. He sold my mother’s car and every morning would lock her in the house and give the key to the shopkeeper who lived nearby,” Nisreen said.

“I think it goes without saying that my father always used to beat her, too” Nisreen added.

Abeer made repeated attempts to leave her husband, but with no money and three children, she had few options. Nisreen said that every time Abeer tried to leave, her father would threaten to take the children away. All requests Abeer made for a divorce were ignored.

Luckily for Abeer, she had a son from a previous marriage who was able to pay for the education of his half-siblings, something Abeer’s husband had refused to do. “When I finished university, my brother bought our mother a house,” said Nisreen. “Also around that time, the new divorce law came into force, so my mother left my father, went to live in her new home and within three months was granted a divorce.” If it hadn’t been for the introduction of legislation allowing women in Jordan to divorce their husbands with greater ease, Abeer would still be in a violent marriage.

After the divorce, said Nisreen, her father married a 16-year-old Bedouin girl. “When I went to visit my dad, I saw he was doing to her exactly what he used to do to my mom,” she said. “I felt that there was nothing I could do for her except be her friend and give her support.”

Marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Tuesday, both men and women across the world campaigned to bring an end to the horrific experiences suffered by the likes of Abeer. Violence against women is “the most pervasive yet least recognized human rights abuse in the world,” the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has said.

According to the World Health Organization, one-third of all women in the world have been forced into sex, beaten, or otherwise abused, usually by someone known to them, during their life. Most women are more likely to die or be disabled due to domestic violence than from disease, war or car accidents.

In Lebanon, KAFA: Enough Violence and Exploitation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to eradicating gender-based violence, child abuse and human trafficking, launched Tuesday the annual “16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence” campaign, along with a number of other NGOs.

During the campaign, which will run until International Human Rights Day on December 10, awareness stalls will be set up at Lebanese universities, shopping malls and supermarkets, and signatures will be collected for a petition calling on the Lebanese government to adopt a family-violence protection bill.

The KAFA-drafted law is needed, said program coordinator Ghida Anani, because “the Lebanese penal code’s view of violence does not take into consideration the intimacy and specificity of family relations.” Lebanese law does not consider marital rape a crime either. “The law we are asking for is preventative,” said Anani. “It would see the establishment of special police stations to deal with family violence, the establishment of a family court, and force the abuser to pay all expenses related to violence, such as medical care,” she added.

The draft law reflected a “huge need” by Lebanese women, said Anani, for legal protection, “considering all the obstacles they face” to escape domestic violence. “Many women suffer from economic dependence, the threat of having their children taken from them and difficulties in obtaining divorce,” she said, adding that most divorce cases in Lebanon were filed “because of abuse.”

Clause 61 of the Ministerial Statement issued in August noted that the government would “work toward implementing Lebanon’s commitment to international conventions and in particular to CEDAW [the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women]. It added that the government would “also seek to address all forms of violence against females.”

The clause was “the first time ever that mention has been made of violence against women with an explicit promise for legal reform,” said KAFA. But Lebanon has yet to ratify CEDAW.

In a statement to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said Tuesday: “We call on people and leaders around the world to join forces to make violence against women history. Let us reaffirm our faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women.”

But with the number of women seeking help from KAFA increasing, the fight to protect women from violence still has a long way to go.

 KAFA’s helpline can be reached on 03 018 019

 ‘A year of missed opportunities’ for migrant workers – human rights watch

BEIRUT: Many migrant and domestic workers continue to face abuse and exploitation in the Middle East and Asia because of a lack of laws protecting their rights, US-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday. In a press release issued to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on Tuesday, HRW said domestic workers have little access to the justice system in the countries where they work, and even when they do complain, “rarely receive redress.”

“Governments need to punish abusive employers through the justice system, and prevent violence by reforming labor and immigration policies that leave these workers at their employers’ mercy,” said the deputy director of HRW’s Women’s Rights division, Nisha Varia.

Hundreds of thousands of African and Asian women work in Lebanon and the Gulf as domestic workers, but most are excluded from the labor laws of those countries. “Employers control a worker’s immigration status and ability to change jobs, and sometimes whether the worker can return home,” said the press release. “Many employers exploit this power to confine domestic workers to the house, withhold pay, and commit other abuses.”

“2008 marked a year of missed opportunities,” said Varia. “While most governments have started to think about some level of reform, many of these discussions have stalled. Providing comprehensive support services to victims of violence, prosecuting abusers, and providing civil remedies are reforms that just can’t wait.”

HRW called for a number of measures to be taken to protect the rights of migrant domestic workers working in the Middle East and Asia, including the abolishment or reform of “immigration-sponsorship policies so that domestic workers’ visas are no longer tied to their employers,” the prosecution of perpetrators of psychological, physical and sexual violence, the creation of support services and legal aid for workers who face abuse, and training for law enforcement officials “on how to respond to domestic workers’ complaints appropriately.”

A HRW report issued in August found that migrants workers in Lebanon were dying at a rate of more than one per week, either as a result of suicide or while trying to escape abusive employers.

Film casts spotlight on abusive employers of domestic workers

25 Nov

Film casts spotlight on abusive employers of domestic workers
Documentary calls for protecting rights of household helpers

By Dalila Mahdawi
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Film casts spotlight on abusive employers of domestic workers
 

 

 

BEIRUT: “Finally, the Filipina domestic worker is arriving,” begins Carol Mansour’s latest documentary. “This is the first time I’m getting someone to help at home … I have no doubt that she will help me a lot.””Maid in Lebanon II,” which screened on Monday evening at Club 43 in Gemmayzeh, is Mansour’s second film addressing the status of female migrant workers in Lebanon.

Whereas the first film was told from the point of view of a domestic worker, “Maid in Lebanon II” is narrated by Ghada Najjar, who has employed a woman called Jelly Cadez to help her manage the household. Funded by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and filmed in Sri Lanka and Lebanon, Mansour’s documentary is perhaps the most comprehensive study to date of the working conditions of migrant domestic workers, their rights and obligations under Lebanese law, and those of their employers.

Often leaving their families and abject poverty behind them, hundreds of thousands of women from Africa and Asia travel every year to Lebanon and countries in the Gulf to work as domestic workers. While some women are well treated by their employers, others are not so lucky. Their plight often goes unnoticed and in official circles, ignored. The rights of migrant domestic workers are not protected under Lebanese labor laws, but with 200,000 of them thought to be living here – about 5 percent of the county’s population, people are slowly becoming more aware of the fact that the rights of household helpers need to be protected.

Speaking to The Daily Star, Mansour says, “the problem is so obvious. Anybody, whether they are a filmmaker or a bank worker, can see it.” According to Mansour, who has collected awards for her hard-hitting films on the summer 2006 war in Lebanon and Cairo street children, “there are definitely a lot of things [pertaining to the rights of domestic workers] that need to be talked about.”

In a 2006 study conducted by Ray Jureidini of the American University of Beirut, the biggest complaint made by domestic workers was that their employers withheld their pay. One woman interviewed in the film says she worked for eight years without receiving “even 1,000 lira” from her employer, who shouted at her when she asked to be paid.

“There is no reason for employers to say, “We’ll hold onto your salary,” says Caritas representative Najla Chahda in Mansour’s film. “Would I accept to work all month and not be paid at the end?”

Caritas is the main nongovernmental organization working with domestic workers in Lebanon and says it receives 40 new cases of women seeking help every month.

Jureidini’s study also found that 60,000 to 70,000 domestic workers had been subject to “physical punishment, deprivation of food and forced confinement” and that 10,000 to 20,000 had been physically and sexually abused.

According to an August report released by Human Rights Watch, “at least” 95 women working as domestic workers in Lebanon had died between January 1, 2007, and August 15, 2008, a figure that translates to more than one woman per week. Of the 95 deaths, 40 were “classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicide,” said HRW, stressing that their list was not exhaustive. “Most deaths resulting from a building fall are failed attempts to escape” the ill treatment that Jureidini found so often haunts these women, a labor attache told HRW.

While domestic workers are required to undergo training courses in their home countries before taking up their posts in the Middle East, no similar orientation course is yet demanded of employers. “Some receiving countries” are calling for employers to be trained in “cross-cultural communication … and the rights and duties of both parties,” Ghada narrates. “This practice is not yet established in Lebanon.”

The attitudes toward domestic workers displayed by some employers in “Maid in Lebanon II” offer a convincing argument for the pressing need to introduce such courses.

“They demand so much,” complains one woman of domestic workers. “You can’t even beat them anymore because they’ve become so rude.”

According to a Sri Lankan worker talking to Mansour from a safehouse, her “madame would not allow me to drink milk or Nescafe … She would give me very little food … I was not allowed to sit.”

The attitudes that some employers have toward their house help needs to change, says Chahda. “They claim that since they paid money to get this girl, then they own her.”

Mansour says she was “shocked” by the attitudes of some of the employers she filmed. “They wouldn’t treat their domestic workers the way they do if they put themselves in her shoes,” she says. “If I can change 10 percent of people’s thinking on this issue, I’d feel like I was contributing to a better world,” adds Mansour.

Reacting to Lebanon’s increasingly notorious reputation as a hotbed for domestic worker abuse, Ethiopia this year banned its citizens from seeking employment here. Likewise, Sri Lanka has said it will impose travel restrictions on those seeking employment in Lebanon.

According to the Sri Lankan government, 50 women return from the Middle East in distress each day.

Lebanon is a signatory to the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but has yet to sign the 2003 Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

However, some improvement on the issue is being made.

In early 2006, an official steering committee was established by the Labor Ministry to ease the problems of domestic workers. According to the director of the ILO’s regional office, Nada al-Nashif, whose organization is part of the committee, one of its goals is to introduce standardized employment contracts in Arabic, English, French and the native language of the worker.

These contracts “should protect the rights and responsibilities of both” the employer and employee, Nashif says in the film, and be “available to domestic workers upon their arrival” in the country. The committee has also launched a public awareness campaign on the issue that “targets Lebanese public opinion.”

The ILO is also pressuring the Lebanese government to formulate a new law for migrant workers. This follows a historic achievement earlier this year when “a first step was taken internationally toward recognizing domestic workers’ rights” after the ILO agreed to work on formulating an international convention that would protect their rights, narrates Ghada. 

Most of Lebanon’s migrant women workers are Sri Lankan, numbering some 86,000, according to statistics from the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment. The second two largest communities are Ethiopians and Filipinas.

 

For more information about the film, visit www.fwdprod.com

Guardian travel: exotic

23 Nov

Check out the Guardian Travel section for my tiny tip on what to do and where to go in Beirut, Lebanon.

New signs remind revelers that people live in Gemmayzeh, too

22 Nov

New signs remind revelers that people live in Gemmayzeh, too
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Thursday, November 20, 2008

New signs remind revelers that people live in Gemmayzeh, too
 

BEIRUT: Blue signposts declaring that “Gemmayzeh is a residential area” sprouted up all along the popular nightspot’s main road, Gouraud Street earlier this week. The metal signs follow months of growing friction between the area’s residents and bar owners over noise levels, the lack of police presence and access to parking places.

Every weekend, thousands of cars cruise down Gemmayzeh’s narrow roads in search of parking spaces, causing heavy congestion. By midnight, Gouraud Street, a mere 730 meters long and home to dozens of bars and clubs, is positively throbbing with life, and the sound of drunken party-goers, car horns, music and over-enthusiastic valets fill the air. With a serious lack of parking spaces available, people park their cars wherever they find a space, often illegally, or in nearby neighborhoods.

Aida Azouri, a resident of Tabaris, south of Gemmayzeh, said party-goers were transforming her area into a parking lot on a nightly basis. “It would be better for everyone if they pedestrianized” Gouraud Street, she said, “or at least banned cars there after 9 p.m.”

Following a sit-in by disgruntled residents in March over what they dubbed the “hijacking” of local parking spaces and unbearable noise, Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis shut down over 20 bars said to be operating without licenses and imposed a curfew on the remaining establishments.

On April 14, those curfews were officially dropped, and although agreements were drawn up between the government and Gemmayzeh establishments to ensure the neighborhood was kept quiet for its sleep-deprived residents, the long-standing dispute soon resurfaced.

“We love Gemmayzeh, but we’d also love it to be a bit quieter after midnight,” said Huguette Sfeir, who has lived next to Gouraud Street’s busiest cluster of bars since 1983. “Thursdays to Saturdays, it is very noisy until 2 a.m.,” said Sfeir, who admitted she used to throw eggs and water at raucous pedestrians. “I would like those people making noise to come to my house so they can hear what I hear.”

But while Sfeir wanted a quieter neighborhood, she had reservations about how effective the signs were. “I thank the Beirut Municipality for putting up the signs, but actually I think they’ve wasted their money,” she said.

What is needed in Gemmayzeh is a police presence, added Sfeir. “Two weeks ago, there were two women fighting late at night, beating each other up and shouting. Last week, there were people with pocket knives fighting.” During both incidents, the police were nowhere to be seen.

Makram Zene is president of the Committee for the Development of Gemmayzeh, which comprises Gemmayzeh bar owners and residents, and owns a number of the area’s bars and restaurants. Echoing Sfeir’s sentiments, he said that while the signs were put up “to make people aware” of the area’s residents, “people will not really respect what the signs mean unless they are enforced by the police.”

For things to improve in Gemmayzeh, said Zene, immediate action on two vital points had to be taken. “The Municipality [of Beirut] has to open the Charles Helou parking lot as soon as possible, and traffic police have to be present in the area … We need the police here to regulate traffic and maintain security.”

The Charles Helou car park, an unsightly three-story building at the edge of Gemmayzeh, was built in the 1980s to serve the Beirut Port and the nearby areas of Saifi, Medawwar and Martyrs Square. But it has since stood derelict, with only the structure’s facade functioning as an unofficial bus terminal. Rerouting parking from Gemmayzeh to Charles Helou “would bring money to the municipality,” which owns the lot, said Zene. “The [acting] governor [Nassif Kalloush] is working on it and we ask him kindly to hasten the procedures because we are sure it will solve 50 to 60 percent of the area’s problems.”

When contacted on Wednesday by The Daily Star, the head of Beirut Municipality Michel Assaf said that “Gemmayzeh was of course a residential area not intended for pubs and restaurants,” but declined to comment on future Municipality policies in the area or the Charles Helou parking lot.

Meanwhile, as the bickering between residents and entrepreneurs continues, Beirut’s Hamra district, rapidly growing as a rival to Gemmayzeh, looks set to benefit. Most recently, Molly Malone’s, a bar that had been long-entrenched on Gouraud Street, moved to Hamra, leaving behind at it’s former premises only an angry banner complaining that annual rent had jumped from $30,000 to $130,000. With demand for property in Gemmayzeh at an all-time high, rent has sky rocketed.

Another resident sit-in is slated for 23 January, said Sfeir. The priority is to push for a solution to Gemmayzeh’s parking problems. “We are going to block the road to push for Gemmayzeh’s parking spaces to be only for the use of its residents. Rules must be made,” she said.