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The Migrant Workers

Migrant Workers in Lebanon
by Michael Young


  1. Preface
  2. Chapter one
  3. Chapter two
  4. Chapter four

The Networks and Activities of
Migrant Workers in Lebanon

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7-Sri Lankan Welfare Association

Since early 1999, a group of Sri Lankan workers, assisted by Ethiopians, Indians, and other migrants, have established a fund-raising system to help migrants in need of emergency assistance.[10] The association is headed by Saliya Perera, a Sri Lankan manager in a Dora business office, who, with a group of others, has sought to alleviate the difficulties faced by destitute migrant workers in securing medical treatment. It is often difficult for the poor to gain admission to hospitals since they are unable to pay the requisite deposit. Moreover, many migrant workers who have left their original place of employment because of abuse, have little money to take care of themselves.
The association organizes fund-raising events and, when urgently required, calls for emergency donations from migrant workers. The association's membership fee of $10 per year is an additional source of revenue, and the association has more than a hundred members. Helping provide medical care is only one of the activities of the association. If a migrant worker dies, the association may organize the sending of his or her body back home, or insures that a burial takes place in Lebanon. It also intervenes on behalf of migrants with the General Security service, so as to get them the required papers to return home, particularly when they are sick.

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8-National and professional groupings

A variety of informal, nationally-based migrant groupings exist. Their main objective is to provide a link between those workers of the same nationality or culture. Once again, however, these groupings do not have precise duties, and serve more as solidarity networks to dispense assistance and advice. A Ghanaian Welfare Society exists and is headed by one Joseph Ahwireng. A Tanzanian group also exists, as does one for Sudanese migrants. A Nigerian group was forming in spring 2000, and was inviting Nigerian nationals to apply for formal membership procedures.[11]
These are only some of the national groups in existence, however. It is common for those of similar backgrounds and nationalities to join in a variety of smaller, informal structures, often defined by profession. So, for example, Filipino nurses, of whom there are twenty at the American University Hospital in Beirut, go out on outings together, with the assistance of Sister Amelia Torres.

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9-Religious groupings

As it is mostly priests and nuns who oversee the efforts carried out under the PCAAM umbrella, the role of religion in the life of non-Arab Afro-Asian migrants is substantial. Yet two points should be made: first, there is, apparently, no effort on behalf of the PCAAM organizations to proselytize non-Christian migrants. Indeed one of those involved in the assistance effort, Father Salim Rizkallah of Laksehta, emphasized that attempts at religious conversion were off-limits as far as he was concerned.[12]
And second, it should not be regarded as particularly strange that religion should play such a powerful role within a community of migrants that is usually poor and with little direction. Religion provides migrants with a sense of purpose and a bond to others in a similar situation, in a country offering so little of either. Having said this, however, one should not exaggerate the spiritual ardor of migrant workers: like any other social group, they tend to blend religious with other more worldly activities, when possible.
Once again it should be emphasized that religious groupings provide an array of potential services for migrant workers, acting also as solidarity networks. For example, there is, housed at the AAMC, the Children of Mary, a group established in 1991 by Sister Mary Kolby, who has since gone on to Yemen. The group, currently presided over by Caridad Ocfemia, helps the nuns of the Missionary of Charity in their manual work twice monthly, and acts as a forum for the "spiritual formation" of its members once a month.[13]
Another group, also part of the AAMC effort, is the Confraternity of the Sacred Heart. Made up mostly of African migrant workers, but also including some Asians, the group engages in prayer meetings and Bible study. It also occasionally holds gatherings. For example, in January 2000 it held a Christmas party, at which, among other things, games were organized for children.[14]
Filipino workers have joined together to form a Lebanon chapter of El Shaddai, a Charismatic Catholic renewal movement. The movement was founded in the Philippines, and the Lebanon chapter was established in 1998. Its spiritual director is Father Rizkallah. Members meet each Sunday after Mass at the St. Francis Capuchin church in Hamra, and group members sing in a choir during the noon English service.
Yet another grouping, also reserved for Filipinos, is Couples for Christ. Once again, the objective is to create a forum for the dissemination of religious teachings. Couples for Christ, which began in Manila in 1981, has been described as a "Christian family life renewal program."[15] Despite its name, the group is not solely limited to married couples, having associated programs called Singles for Christ and Kids for Christ. The spiritual director of Couples for Christ is a Filipino priest, Father Jesty Advincula.

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10-Lebanese aid to migrant workers

Closely intertwined with migrant organizations are Lebanese organizations with interests in specific aspects of the migrant experience. The separation between migrant and Lebanese organizations is, at times, artificial, since both often work in coordination with each other, under broader (and diverse) organizational umbrellas.
However, these Lebanese organizations often have broader agendas, dealing with migrant workers as part of a wider effort to assist so-called vulnerable groups. Of particular importance to migrant workers is the provision of legal aid and the dissemination of advice and information. Indeed, many migrant problems are due to a lack of information, whether directly affecting migrants or, indirectly, organizations dealing with migrants' problems.
Legal assistance is of prime importance to migrants since most are too poor to secure legal representation in case of difficulties. As noted above, organizations such as Caritas, the AAMC, and Laksehta benefit from the help of a pool of volunteer lawyers who work, generally, for free. However, their numbers are limited and the legal burden is often tremendous. This has an obvious impact on migrants who are detained, and who must often wait a long time in prison before being represented.
It is also the case that migrant workers may be imprisoned without anyone knowing about their incarceration. That is why the mere fact of visiting detention facilities and prisons is an important task in itself, since being spotted by someone who works in an assistance organization can help speed up legal proceedings. Even this does not invariably mean a quick trial, since there is a substantial judicial backlog, and since information on a detained migrant worker's whereabouts may be passed on to an embassy, which may fail to act.
There are more formal legal networks to help destitute prisoners, among them migrants. The Beirut Bar Association has a Legal Aid Commission, established in late 1992. The commission, which initially began as an effort primarily directed at and for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), became more official once it was attached to the Bar Association. The commission carries out a number of activities, the most important of which is providing legal aid to those who cannot afford it. It also holds weekly sessions to dispense legal advice to those who need it. The commission has about 100 full-time lawyers, yet is very restrictive in the types of cases it takes on for reasons of time. Despite this, it currently has a load of 1,000-1,200 cases. The former head of the commission, George Assaf, estimates that 40-45% of cases involve migrants.[16]
The Lebanese NGO Forum is also one of the organizations involved in helping migrant workers. However, it does not do so on the ground, so to speak, leaving that to such organizations as Caritas, AAMC, Laksehta, and others. Rather, the Forum plays two different roles: first, it loosely coordinates the activities of other NGOs concerned with assistance to prisoners, whether these are migrant workers, women, or children. This it does in the context of a Comité d'Action et de Coordination pour les Prisonniers (CAP). One of the organizations in the CAP coalition is, incidentally, the Legal Aid Commission. And second, the Forum disseminates information on vulnerable groups, including migrant workers, through training seminars, reports, and an information newsletter. Therefore, the activities of the NGO Forum cover migrant workers, but not exclusively so.
The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) deals in a more marginal way with migrant workers, through its dealings with refugees. The MECC is the Lebanese representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It counsels refugees and provides them with assistance. Legally, a refugee cannot work in Lebanon, yet only a portion of refugees are accepted formally as such by the UNHCR. Of the 3,500 Sudanese in Lebanon, for example, only 500 are recognized as refugees.[17] This means that a considerable number, including the refugees among them, must fend for themselves by working illegally. Hence the MECC's efforts must be considered as part of a wider network of assistance to migrant workers, even if the refugees are not formally recognized as such. The MECC officially denies helping refugees find employment, since that is contrary to Lebanese law.

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