Archive | November, 2009

Nepal bans migration to Lebanon amid abuse fears

30 Nov

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Monday, November 30, 2009

BEIRUT: Nepal reintroduced last week a work deployment ban for Lebanon, highlighting growing international concern over the treatment of migrant domestic workers following a wave of suicides over the last two months.
According to a report published Saturday by Nepalese newspaper The Himalayan Times, Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment reintroduced the ban, lifted in May, because of the recent suicides of two female nationals.
Sunit Bholan, 22, allegedly committed suicide October 8, and Mina Rokaya, 24, died in hospital on October 23. A police report seen by Human Rights Watch (HRW) says she died from a heart attack. The women are among at least 10 migrant domestic workers to have died since October.
“The ban … is a necessary emergency step in the face of an alarming rise in the number of suicides by domestic workers in Lebanon,” said Fatima Gomar, editor of Migrant-Rights.org. “There is a growing understanding among Asian governments that they need to step up and bar their citizens from working in countries where their rights are not protected.”
Still, Gomar doubted the ban would halt Nepalese workers travelling to Lebanon illegally.
Nepalese workers, the majority of them women, count for some 17,000 out of approximately 200,000 migrant workers in Lebanon.
While many are treated  with respect by employers, a number encounter abuse. Studies by the American University of Beirut and HRW have shown many women are forcibly confined to their employer’s house, made to work without a day off, subject to sexual or psychological abuse, have their passports confiscated and their salaries withheld. Migrant workers are not protected under Lebanese labor law.

“Passport retention can be a tool to hold workers in exploitative and/or difficult work conditions,” said Azfar Khan, senior migration specialist at the International Labor Organization’s Regional Office for the Arab States. “Despite our best efforts the situation seems to be going from bad to worse.”

The Himalayan Times said the ban was also influenced by the failure of Nepalese recruitment agencies to fulfill promises to establish shelters and to monitor their clients’ treatment by calling them every fortnight. It added nine Nepalese migrants had committed suicide in Lebanon since March this year.

Recruitment agencies often target women in poor rural areas and give misleading information about what to expect abroad, said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at HRW. One Nepalese woman who broke her leg trying to escape her employer, told him “she saw the snow on the mountains and thought if she could cross the mountain, she’d be in Nepal.”
“What is needed is a better management of … the conditions of work and better protection structures,” said Khan. “Institutionally embedding better management regimes is the only way we can ensure a better protection of rights.”
The ban follows on from similar deployment restrictions enforced by Sri Lanka, Philippines, Ethiopia and Madagascar.

From Our Own Correspondent

27 Nov

You can listen to me talking about Lebanon’s architectural heritage and transformation, on the BBC’s From our Own Correspondent program last week. You can also read it (unedited) below:

Dalila Mahdawi in Beirut

They wake me up early every morning without fail. The construction workers in the lot behind my house bang away at steel, shift concrete blocks and yell instructions at one another. Workers on the other side of the street soon join in, busying themselves with the demolition of a building.

Beirut has for so long been synonymous with conflict and destruction.  But now it’s a city in rapid transition, changing into a modern and sleek metropolis. In almost every neighborhood, the sound of building or demolition is constant, ringing out as regularly as a heartbeat.

Lebanon is well versed in destruction – a fifteen year civil war ending in 1990 saw hundreds of thousands die or disappear.  Many buildings became sniper towers and battle grounds between warring militias. A war with Israel in 2006 also saw large swathes of the country reduced to rubble.

The conflicts have left behind a vast number of shambolic buildings in need of demolition or renovation.  But they have also provided an unprecedented opportunity for construction companies and investors to transform the country’s very character.

The current stability has encouraged previously cautious investors, as well as expatriate Lebanese hoping to reconnect with their country, to put up big money for real estate projects. It seems demand for housing has never been higher, and so the pock-marked or low-rise buildings are torn down … and the fancy apartments are bought up even before they are built.

But in the frenzied rush to reconstruct, many structures of architectural interest or historical importance are also falling victim to the wrecker’s ball. Fifty years ago, the Beirut skyline was made up of low-rise apartment blocks and picturesque stone houses.  Those have quickly given way to impersonal glass and concrete tower blocks.

On my street alone, a total of seven buildings have disappeared in recent years, including some real treasures – a 1950s art deco apartment building and two smaller houses that were at least a couple of centuries old. Soon, only the older residents will remember what this area used to look like.

Not everyone in Lebanon is quietly accepting the architectural transformation of their country.

Nestled in the lush Chouf Mountains, the charming village of Deir Al-Qamar, with its 17th and 18th century stone houses is proof that modernization and architectural heritage can find common ground.

The village boasts some of the best-preserved buildings in the country, including a mosque from 1493, winding stepped alleys, the palace of a former Ottoman governor, a restored merchants inn, and a 16th century emir’s palace. The local municipality hopes to preserve the area’s architecture by stipulating that today’s house builders must use traditional limestone brick, and red tiles for the roofs.

Meanwhile, a synagogue in downtown Beirut badly damaged by Israeli shelling is being refurbished after receiving donations both from Lebanese Jews and the international community. It is one of only a few remaining Jewish sites left in the country.

A few activists have also drawn attention to the need to preserve buildings associated with the Civil War. If all signs of war are erased, it makes it all that much easier to repeat the violence, the activists argue. One of these passionate people is architect Mona Hallak, who is largely behind the saving of one of Beirut’s true architectural delights.

The Barakat Building, a magnificent four story Art Nouveau apartment block built in the 1920s, was transformed into a militia headquarters during the civil war because of its strategically important location on the front line between divided East and West Beirut. Every floor had large, stained-glass windows offering views of the streets below, allowing snipers to pick off their targets with relative ease. The building was pulverized by rocket fire, grenades and bullets.

Today the land on which the Barakat Building sits is prime real estate worth millions. Its owners had decided to tear it down and sell it to developers. But Hallak’s efforts meant it was saved at the last minute, even as workers had already begun tearing up the marble tiles and removing intricate iron railings.

With the help of a few like-minded friends, she launched a petition and newspaper campaign demanding the building be preserved. Eventually the demolition permit was rescinded and in 2002 the city government took charge of the gutted structure. The Barakat Building is now set to become Beirut’s first museum of municipal history.

Still standing in spite of all its glaring wounds, and almost in defiance of the glass tower blocks popping up all around it, the Barakat Building offers people here some reassurance … the actions of a dedicated few architecture lovers don’t always go unnoticed. (C) of the BBC and Dalila Mahdawi

Nationality rights: ignored but not forgotten

26 Nov

Omission of issue from ministerial statement does not justify neglect
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Thursday, November 26, 2009

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s new Cabinet must not forget its duty to work toward granting Lebanese women nationality rights, despite its apparent omission of the issue in the ministerial statement, gender-equality activists said Wednesday. Over 100 people heeded the call of social justice organization Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A) to demand an overhaul of the current discriminatory legislation, formulated in 1925. 

The law allows men to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese wives and children but forbids Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese from doing the same. This injustice is further exacerbated by Lebanon’s reservation on Article 2 of paragraph 9 of the UN Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, pertaining to nationality rights. 

“The Lebanese Constitution lets any Lebanese man who marries a foreigner automatically give her his nationality and even if she has 10 children from a previous marriage, they get the Lebanese nationality,” said one woman who wished not to be identified. “But children who are born in this country and are Lebanese citizens more than some of our politicians cannot get the nationality.” 

There are about 18,000 Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese living in Lebanon and over 80,000 people affected by the current legislation, including children and spouses, according to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) “Toward Reforming the Nationality Law in Lebanon” project. 

CRTD.A launched the regional Nationality Campaign nearly a decade ago to demand reform of discriminatory nationality laws. Since then the campaign has met with considerable success, with Algeria, Morocco and Egypt changing their laws, said CRTD.A executive director Lina Abou-Habib. More recently, Bahrain adopted measures guaranteeing equality for women and Syria has enforced laws stipulating gender equality in education. “We are witnessing progress in the region. There is no excuse for Lebanon not to join in,” Abou-Habib said. Viewed as illegal aliens, those without Lebanese citizenship face myriad difficulties, including obtaining employment or affordable education and health care, are required to go for regular medical check-ups and blood tests, and face the threat of deportation every day. The difficulties faced by those without citizenship was on Wednesday apparent as audience members emotionally recounted painful experiences. 

One Lebanese woman married to a non-Lebanese said she feared for her children’s financial future. “Who is going to in­herit from me after I die? Neither my children nor my husband will benefit from my life’s work.” 

There are also a number of people who, because of a decades-old administrative oversight, continue to be denied their right to Lebanese citizenship. “Men and women are treated the same when it comes to injustice,” said audience member Haider Radi, struggling to hold back tears. “I was born of a Lebanese father. My father was born in Lebanon in 1920 and was registered in 1932 but he was then transferred to the foreign register in 1936. My father suffered from bad governance and now I’m suffering and my daughters are suffering.” 

Abou-Habib reiterated the Nationality Campaign would not accept reform of the nationality law that excludes Palestinians. Those against an amendment of the law have argued that the naturalization of thousands of Palestinian men and children would tip Leba­non’s delicate sectarian balance in favor of Sunni Muslims, the religion of the majority of the country’s 400,000 Palestinian refugees. 

But rights activists have pointed out that less than 2 percent of Lebanese women are married to Palestinians. “Any nationality law that comes with exceptions would be unconstitutional,” Abou-Habib said, referring to the Constitution’s demand for total equality between men and women. 

While nationality rights are important in their own right, Lebanon’s sexist legislation is only one manifestation of gender inequality, activists said. In a statement earlier this month, the Nationality Campaign urged ministers to include “clear statements” in the upcoming Ministerial Statement on how they intended to push forward gender equality. In particular, they de­manded clauses addressing the right for Lebanese women to pass on their nationality, the implementation of a women’s quota for municipal polls next year, and the approval of a proposed family-based violence bill. But the Cabinet has already disappointed them. Abou-Habib said Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud had told members of the Nationality Campaign last Friday that out of 30 ministers, which include two women, only he and Information Minister Tareq Mitri had called for the ministerial statement to include a clause acknowledging the need to reform the nationality law. 

Lebanese politicians’ inaction has only reasserted the determination of activists to persevere with their demands. “We’re going to go through with the na­tionality campaign and we won’t wait for any MPs to take action,” said one audience member.

Migrant Women Dying on the Job

21 Nov

By Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT, Nov 21 (IPS) – October and November have been bloody months for Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers – over the last five weeks nine women have died. Most deaths have been reported as suicide.

The body of 20-year old Anget R. of Madagascar was found hanging from a rope at her employer’s bedroom door Nov. 11. A newspaper in Madagascar reported the deaths of two other Malagasy women in October. One, identified only as Mampionona, was said to have fallen from the balcony of her employer’s house. The other, identified as Vololona, died after reportedly jumping from the balcony.

Sunit Bholan of Nepal, who was 22, allegedly committed suicide Oct. 8. Ethiopian Kassaye Etsegenet, 23, died after reportedly jumping from the seventh floor of her employer’s house Oct. 15. She left behind a suicide note citing personal reasons.

On Oct. 21, 26-year-old Zeditu Kebede Matente of Ethiopia was found dead, hanging from an olive tree. Two days later 30-year old Saneet Mariam also of Ethiopia died after allegedly falling from the balcony of her employer’s house.

The list goes on: Nepalese national Mina Rokaya, 24, and then Tezeta Yalmoya of Ethiopia, 26 – who also died, it was said, when she fell from the balcony.

“It’s a national tragedy,” Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells IPS.

There are an estimated 200,000 women working in Lebanon as live-in housekeepers, cooks and nannies. Most are from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines, though increasing numbers are arriving from Nepal, Madagascar and Bangladesh.

The workers leave their families behind to travel to Lebanon and look after strangers. Many are treated well by their employers; others are less fortunate.

Once in Lebanon, the women may be confined to their employer’s house, and have their passports confiscated and their salaries withheld, increasing their sense of isolation. Many women say they are not allowed out of the house, or get a day off. Complaints of sexual or psychological abuse are not uncommon.

Lebanon’s controversial sponsorship system means that workers are bound to their employers, and face incarceration if they leave. “It’s distressing to note that suicide for some is the only recourse to release from an abusive situation,” says Azfar Khan, senior migration specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) regional office for the Arab states.

Police investigations are often inadequate, usually taking into consideration only the employer’s testimony and failing to cross-check it with neighbours or the worker’s friends or family, says Houry. If the woman is lucky enough to survive a suicide attempt, the police almost never provide her with a translator, or ask whether she had been abused. Cases where abusive employers are imprisoned “are the exception, not the rule,” says Houry.

The recent spate of deaths is not the first. A HRW study last year found that at least 95 women had died between Jan. 1, 2007 and Aug. 15, 2008 – a rate of more than one a week.

Aimee, a freelance domestic worker from Madagascar, has been in Lebanon for almost 12 years. As a community leader now, she helps workers in distress by offering a sympathetic ear and advice.

Many of the women she counsels do not receive a regular salary, or have been abused by their employers or recruitment agency officials. Agencies “check the women’s bags for phone numbers or addresses of their consulate,” Aimee tells IPS. Any numbers found are destroyed to prevent the woman seeking help. “How can they ask someone to work so far away from home and treat them like that?”

Lebanon’s growing notoriety as a hotbed for abuse of rights has compelled the governments of Ethiopia and the Philippines to issue bans on their nationals working in Lebanon. But this hasn’t stemmed the tide of migrants entering through third countries. Bans in any case only “transfer the problem from one nationality to another,” says Houry, because recruitment agencies simply look to new countries for women workers.

One reason for suicides is the false expectations recruitment agencies raise among migrant workers. Many women are led to believe they will work as nurses or as other professionals. “A lot of these women are recruited in rural areas – it’s like taking someone and plucking them into a totally different environment,” says Houry.

One Nepalese woman he spoke to after she broke her leg trying to escape her employer’s house said “she saw the snow on the mountains and thought if she could cross the mountain, she’d be in Nepal.”

Lebanese labour laws do not cover domestic workers. Without any legal protection, foreign workers are vulnerable to exploitation.

“The ILO has been pushing for domestic workers to be covered under labour law – not just in Lebanon but in other countries of the region – so that at least institutionally they enjoy protection and have the option to have their grievances addressed in court,” says Khan. “They are workers, so why should the labour law not apply to them?”

Lebanon has signed the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but has yet to move towards signing the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families – a measure that would obligate it to take protection measures for the migrant community.

But more practical measures the Lebanese could take are to create a national hotline for distressed workers and a labour inspection force to monitor the treatment of migrants, says Houry. “More broadly, society has to mobilise. Not everyone is guilty of ill-treatment, but everyone has to feel responsible. People need to start speaking out and express that this is unacceptable.”

Last remaining glass-blowers in Lebanon struggle to keep business alive

21 Nov

Khalifeh business hit hard as new highway curbs traffic along old costal road
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, November 21, 2009

Glass at the Khalifeh shop in Sarafand


SARAFAND: During the hey-day of the Phoenician civilization, the trading post of ancient Serepta would have had a thriving artisan community with glass makers, potters and timber merchant selling their wares to sea-farers. Today Serepta is better known as Sarafand – a sleepy run-down village in southern Lebanon with pot-holed roads where no one seems to loiter too long.

The potters and glass blowers have long gone, with mechanics and kebab vendors taking their place. Lebanon’s once thriving glass trade hasn’t completely died out, however. One family is determinedly keeping the ancient tradition alive, albeit with considerable difficulty.

The Khalifeh family has been blowing glass for about 40 years, selling their goods in a local shop or to wholesalers. In happier times, says shop manager Nisrine Khalifeh, her grandfather taught apprentices the painstaking trade and employed several dozen locals.

The family had a thriving business, helped along by exposure at international craft fairs and friendly tour guides who would bring generous-spending Beirutis to the shop.

Today, Nisrine’s father Hussein runs the business but the locals aren’t interested in working with glass. “No one likes to do it because it’s so hard,” Nisrine says with a sigh. “Many people have asked to learn but then they can’t handle the heat.” She points to her father, who at 55 years old looks more like 85.

His face has been leathered and shoulders hunched by years sweating it out in front of the oven, designing and shaping glass in 140 degree heat. The future of Lebanon’s glass-blowing heritage now rests in the hands of Hussein, Nisrine and seven other family members.

The dearth of trained glass blowers has been accompanied by decreasing sales at the Khalifeh’s shop in Sarafand. Despite the undeniable appeal of the shop’s colorful interior, with its rainbow of ornate standing candle holders, hanging decorations, water jugs and vases, hardly anyone ever visits.

When the southern coastal highway opened a few years ago, business at the Khalifeh shop, which is situated on the old coastal road, was hard hit.

Now, says Nisrine, the only people that come to the shop are foreign clients who might not have visited in a few years or soldiers from UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL looking for presents to take home. “When the autostrade was closed a few months ago and people had to travel on the coastal road, a lot of people came in and bought things,” she says. With only the most motivated clients bothering to make the journey, the Khalifeh family’s glass products are one of Lebanon’s best-kept secrets.

Ever-rising fuel costs are also taking a toll. Because of the exorbitant prices, the Khalifehs only turn on the ovens for big orders to highbrow boutiques in Beirut who then sell the glass products for double or triple the original price.

The oven costs $500 each day to run and takes 24 hours to reach 1,500 degrees, the temperature where glass finally turns to liquid. “Sometimes we stop for two or three months because there’s no work,” Nisrine says. When The Daily Star visited, the ovens had been off for some time.

The ovens themselves are also expensive to keep, as they can only be used twice before the intense heat turns the bricks to sand.

Apart from the high fuel consumption, the Khalifeh’s glass production is environmentally sound, using only recycled glass. Behind the shop, rusty bath tubs and old oil vats groan under the weight of shattered beer and wine bottles, mirrors and windows.

The road ahead looks discouraging for Lebanon’s last remaining glass blowers. Assistance from the government has not been forthcoming, though the Khalifeh’s say they don’t expect help. If mounting costs and falling demand finally force the family to close shop for good, Nisrine doesn’t know what her brothers will do: they left school when they were 12 to learn the trade. “My brothers only know glass-blowing. There’s no work for them except this.”

Ministerial Statement fails to address nationality law

21 Nov

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, November 21, 2009

BEIRUT: The head of a leading Lebanese social justice organization on Friday lamented the absence from the Ministerial Statement any efforts toward reforming the country’s sexist nationality law. Lina Abou-Habib, executive director of the Collective for Research, Training and Development-Action, said Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud relayed to the organization his disappointment that out of 30 ministers, which includes two female ministers, only he and Information Minister Tareq Mitri had urged the Ministerial Statement include a clause acknowledging the need to reform the country’s 1925 nationality law.

The law allows Lebanese men to pass on their nationality to their non-Lebanese wives and children, but forbids Lebanese women from doing the same.

Abou-Habib said the decision was a “serious setback” for gender equality activists.

“It is extremely disappointing. We were expecting something better from this government given all the work that had been done and all the promises made” on allowing Lebanese women to pass on their nationality, Abou-Habib said.

“It shows consistency with the previous government in terms of the total disregard for women rights and citizenship rights,” she added, noting the Justice Ministry’s recent decision to appeal the granting of citizenship to four children born to a Lebanese mother and an Egyptian father. No ministers were immediately available for comment.

CRTD.A has called for a meeting Wednesday Midday at the Engineers Syndicate in Mosaitbeh to step up action.

Rampant corruption claims as Lebanon slips down graft ratings

18 Nov

Watchdog suggests growing public awareness has shifted scores
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s corruption ranking for 2009 has slipped 28 points from last year to 130th place, graft monitoring organization Transparency International (TI) said Tuesday. The Berlin-based organization’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index also found Lebanon’s graft rating had fallen half a point to 2.5 out of 10 on a scale where 0 indicated “highly corrupt” and 10 “highly clean.”

The index ranks 180 countries on perceived levels of public sector corruption and corruption among politicians, using assessments and surveys collected by other organizations.

Although 180 countries were also assessed last year, TI’s senior coordinator for measuring corruption Juanita Riano told The Daily Star the index was not meant as “a measurement over time, but rather a snapshot of the current situation” of global corruption.

“At a time when massive stimulus packages, fast-track disbursements of public funds and attempts to secure peace are being implemented around the world, it is essential to identify where corruption blocks good governance and accountability, in order to break its corrosive cycle” said Huguette Labelle, TI Chair.

In the organization’s 2008 index, Lebanon ranked 102nd, 11th out of 20 countries in the Arab world and scored three out of 10. The low scores were thought to be because of the country’s political deadlock, which held back key reforms.

TI said corruption thrived when essential government institutions were weak or non-existent, resulting in insecurity and impunity.

“Corruption also makes normal a seeping loss of trust in the very institutions and nascent governments charged with ensuring survival and stability.”

According to the organization Global Integrity – which tracks international governance and corruption – political meddling and nepotism in Lebanon are “rampant in media, civil service and law enforcement agencies.”

Fighting corruption “requires strong oversight by parliaments, a well-performing judiciary, independent and properly resourced audit and anti-corruption agencies, vigorous law enforcement, transparency in public budgets, revenue and aid flows, as well as space for independent media and a vibrant civil society,” Labelle said.

Lebanon’s fall in rank is probably not indicative of increased corruption but of growing public awareness, said Gaelle Kibranian, program director at TI’s Lebanon chapter, the Lebanese Transparency Association.

“What we are linking it to is perceptions, especially given the fact that we had parliamentary elections” in June this year, which despite government regulation, were marked by stories of vote-buying and dubious campaign financing.

“I think it is very timely to have [the corruption index published] just before the ministerial statement, Kibranian said, hoping it would push officials to address corruption in the government’s guiding document.

New Zealand came first in this year’s corruption index, ranking in at 9.4, followed by Denmark at 9.3, and Singapore and Sweden at 9.2. Wallowing at the bottom of the index for a second consecutive year is Somalia, with a score of 1.1.

The index comes just 10 days after the Lebanese Transparency Association published a report indicating that corruption in the country was pervasive at all levels of society and state, taking such forms as embezzlement, vote-buying, patronage, bribery, and clientelism.