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Note to MDWs: Don't Come to Lebanon

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Migrant domestic workers continue to die at the rate of one a week in Lebanon. Let's take that in for a moment. One a week. Sure, they aren't murdered, or beaten to death, or driven to despair by brutally repressive 'Madames' and 'Misters'; they all kill themselves. It's suicide. Unavoidable. Collateral damage.

At least that's what Lebanon's oft-medieval judiciary and police would have you believe.

Human Rights Watch's latest report, compiled through exhaustive research and interviews and reviewing 114 legal cases involving MDWs, begs to differ.

It found, among other things, that out of all cases involving violence against the employee, not a single prosecution was brought for punching, pushing or slapping. Of those serious violence trials, the maximum custodial sentence delivered was 30 days.

Three quarters of legal cases studied were brought against a MDW, usually on spurious counter-charges of theft, fabricated when a worker gets a little sick of having their hair pulled and dignity shattered.

Desperate, seeking sanctuary, thousands of miles from home and imprisoned by maniacal employees, some MDWs seek out the police. When they do, they are detained for no reason, or threatened with expulsion from Lebanon. Some are beaten mercilessly by cruel officers. One was raped.

The report highlights not only shocking individual cases of MDW abuse, it also sheds light on a systemic framework of maltreatment, with which the police and judiciary are complicit.

Driven to despair, one MDW sought to involve the authorities to put an end to the endless torment her 'Madame' was meting out. In Madagascar, policemen help. "Here, there are part of the problem," she said.

Many people in Beirut have been shouting about this disgrace until they are hoarse. Nadim Houry, HRW's affable and thoughtful Beirut office chief, wears the look of a man who is growing tired of exposing awful truths to shoulder shruggers. The problem gets sporadic media attention, then filters out of public consciousness.

Lebanon is a land reborn, no longer third-world and war-torn (if you believe the lazy journalese spewed out by international publications). Beirut is a town of rooftop clubs and valet parking. It is a city of restaurants, of services, or legendary hospitality.

But not if you're a MDW.

It's the part of Lebanese life that the travel agents won't tell you about. It's a segment of existence that not even NGO workers, journalists and human rights activists can truly access. The subtext of Lebanese homelife, in many cases, involves inhuman treatment of MDWs. Their lives are miserable, monotonous, often in danger, until one day they end, confined to a footnote detailing a "suicide" on the NNA.

I have been churlish enough before to suggest that racism is extant and virulent in some parts of Lebanese society as, of course, it is in every country.

In view of that, I shall steer clear of such ambiguous and hard-to-define terminology. I cannot comment on conditions faced by MDWs in their home countries; I simply don't know the circumstances.

But what can be said is that discrimination exists here; in some ways it is endemic. Many beach clubs won't allow black people in (some will). Migrant workers have their passports confiscated, wages withheld and many aren't allowed to leave their employers' houses, even if they are lucky enough to be given one day off a week.

Steering clear of value judgments, or hyperbole, here are the facts. The Ministry of Labor says 2009 saw 114,933 MDWs registering to work. (This is a fraction of the true number, given the many thousands of workers who are in Lebanon illegally). But let's keep things official.

114,933 workers. Sample sizes suggest 52 percent have been verbally abused by employers. "More than a third" have been physically abused. 75 percent have their wages withheld and eight out of 10 are not free to leave the house as they please.

It is unequivocal. Even at the very lowest ebb of the spectrum (assuming 33 percent - "a third"), at least 38,311 registered MDWs have been subject to physical abuse. That means there are at least 38,311 Lebanese employers who, at least at one time, deem it appropriate to be physically violent to MDWs. 38, 311.

It would not be as bad if Lebanon had a robust judiciary that was prepared to bring aggressors to justice. But, as HRW's work shows, it doesn't. Abused workers continue to be silenced at best, victimized at worst.

As there is little framework protecting the rights of MDWs here, there is little they can do to guarantee they won't be subjected to abuse in a Lebanese home. The only way to guarantee MDWs against violence in Lebanon, regrettably, is not to come.