Housemaid Alem Dechasa killed herself after street attack that sparked outrage over treatment of migrant workers in Lebanon
Ethiopia is lobbying Lebanon to investigate fully the death of an Ethiopian housemaid who killed herself after being beaten on the street in Beirut.
Video footage of Alem Dechasa being attacked outside the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut was broadcast on Lebanese television two weeks ago, causing outrage in the country about the mistreatment of the thousands of migrant workers in the country.
In the video, Dechasa is seen being violently dragged along the street by a man and forced into a car. One man screams at her, “Get into the car” while another is seen helping to force Dechasa into the back of the vehicle.
She was taken to the Pyschiatrique de la Croix hospital, known locally as Deir al-Salib, after the incident, and was found dead there last Wednesday morning, apparently having hanged herself using strips torn from her bed sheets.
The Ethiopian consulate has launched legal proceedings against the man identified in the video as the owner of the employment agency who brought Dechasa to Lebanon. The man was questioned by police but later released. The consulate is pressing the authorities to carry on investigating her death.
“We had a meeting with the general prosecutor,” Asaminew Debelie Bonssa, Ethiopia’s consul general in Lebanon, said. The consul visited Dechasa in hospital a few days before she died.
“We urge [the authorities] to co-operate and to investigate this case,” Bonssa said. “We have requested the highest body possible to investigate, and are asking for the investigation to be done as soon as possible. He should not have used force on her. I am just so deeply shocked and sorrowful about her death.”
Dechasa, 33, left her hometown of Burayu, a poor suburb of Addis Ababa, in search of work overseas. According to Bonssa, her husband had left her for another woman, and had taken custody of her three children.
“There are not many ways to earn a living where she is from. She was not in a good situation there, and left to try to make her and her family’s life better,” Bonnsa said. “She arrived here about two months ago via Sudan. The owners of the agency who brought her here came to us and said she was mentally unstable, and that they wanted her to be sent her back. When I saw her in hospital, she was very upset about this.
“She had borrowed money from a neighbour in Ethiopia to pay to come to Lebanon, and she came here with the ambition to send money back to her family. She was worried if she was sent home now she would not have been able to repay her neighbour.”
The hospital did not return any calls regarding Dechasa’s mental health.
Ethiopia banned domestic workers from travelling to Lebanon three years ago because of the lack of legal protection, but many still come, through agents that help them travel through third countries to bypass the regulations.
There are around 200,000 foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, and reports of physical, sexual and mental abuse are widespread. Ali Fakhry, of Lebanon’s Anti-Racist Movement, which campaigns for better rights for migrant workers, says many pay as much as $3,000 (£1,900) to agents to get here, and then find themselves kept as virtual slaves. There is no law protecting domestic workers in Lebanon.
“They are told to come to Lebanon, a multicultural country where you can practise your religion freely. They are told it is more like Europe here than the Middle East, and they will get Sundays off for church,” Fakhry said. “When they get here, their passports taken away from them, their wages are withheld, and they are often kept as prisoners, not allowed out of the home. Many are physically and sexually abused, and there is nothing to protect them. It is a system of slavery.”
A report by Human Rights Watch found that one migrant worker dies in Lebanon every week, from suicide or other causes. “The police do not investigate any reports of abuse,” Fakhry said. “The authorities must take responsibility for domestic workers in this country. This just can’t go on.”
A source from the ministry of justice in Lebanon said a case against the man identified in the video was pending.
from Rachel Stevenson