Beirut, Lebanon – Sarah and Joanna sit in front of a large red suitcase filled with blankets, clothes and cans of food: all that is left of Sarah’s belongings.
They are on the stairs of the Kenyan consulate in Beirut, which has been their home for the past three weeks. Behind them the word “justice” is graffitied on the stairway wall. In the lobby below, more women squeeze together on a couple of mattresses preparing for the cold night ahead.
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They are part of a group of dozens of Kenyan domestic workers who have been squatting in their consulate to demand their right to be repatriated.
“They told me I would travel on January 26, but they lie every day. Before I see the flight [tickets] I won’t believe it,” Sarah told Al Jazeera as she put items in and out of the suitcase.
The women came to Lebanon for work under the country’s kafala system, which is often compared to modern-day slavery. After months of abuse or non-payment, they left their employers in hopes of returning to Kenya.
It is a scenario that has become increasingly frequent during Lebanon’s crippling economic crisis. While the demand for domestic workers in the country remains high, money to pay them is running low.
In 2020, several groups of domestic workers from Ethiopia, the Philippines and Sudan also held sit-ins in their embassies after being abandoned by their employers.
However, disgruntled workers hoping to go home face the cruelties of the kafala system, which include sponsors keeping their passports, avoiding their legal obligation to pay for their return tickets, and even accusing the workers of stealing or other crimes to avoid responsibility.
“It’s not hard to find out who the employers for these workers are,” Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera. “Why aren’t there investigations? Because we have a history in Lebanon of lack of enforcement and particularly when it comes to migrant domestic workers.”
‘I wanted to die’
Sarah, 40, has been waiting for months with no answer from relevant authorities.
She arrived in Lebanon in February 2021. As often happens, she signed a contract in Arabic upon her arrival and hasn’t seen her passport since. She was abused by her employer, who banned her from using the bathroom or shower, and told her children to call her “caca” or “gorilla”.
“I used to shower when I saw she was drunk. Or when she went to sleep, I would open the door slowly and go outside put water, cold water, and shower from the balcony outside,” she told Al Jazeera.
In September 2021 Sarah’s father fell ill with pneumonia in Kenya and needed expensive oxygen to stay alive. When she asked for an advance from her pay, $200 a month to be paid at the end of her two-year contract, her employers demanded she proved her father was sick.
Sarah played the video she showed her employer: it pictures her father in a hospital bed, hooked up to an oxygen bottle.
“The doctors told us ‘you stayed too much without paying so we need to remove the oxygen’. She said she’d pay but she never paid. And this is when he died,” she said in tears.
“I felt like it was my fault,” she added. “I wanted to die.”
Under the kafala system, domestic workers are not contemplated in Lebanon’s labour laws, which leads to frequent abuse including documented cases of beatings and sexual assault.
The latest data, from 2008, shows domestic workers in Lebanon were dying of non-natural cases at a rate of one per week, according to HRW.
In November 2021, during a visit to the country, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights called for the abolishment of the kafala system in Lebanon.
At the time, the minister of labour, Moustafa Bayram, pledged to “scrutinise criteria for granting permits to recruitment agencies to prevent cases of human trafficking”, and to implement a standard unified contract that stipulates labour rights for foreign domestic workers.
The UN special rapporteur also warned “once domestic workers leave their employer, they lose their residency right and are considered to be ‘illegal’ migrants in the country, subject to risks of arrest and detention.”
‘We are not a prison’
After her father’s death, Sarah ran away from her sponsor’s house and went to the police, who took her to a shelter in Beirut run by the Catholic non-profit organisation Caritas.
The shelter protects victims of human trafficking and race-based victims, according to Caritas. However, many activists and migrant workers know the shelter as a “detention centre”.
Sarah also calls it that. She and five other women protesting at the Kenyan consulate stayed there for several months without access to a phone, little information about their repatriation case, and they say they were not allowed to leave.
A member of a migrants’ rights group, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she has heard complaints against the shelter from several different women with various nationalities.
“If you want to go inside of Caritas you have to stay there. When you’re inside, they don’t have their phone… It’s like detention, that you are inside a jail. This is the number one complaint I’ve heard from a lot of women,” she told Al Jazeera.
Several rights groups such as the Lebanese Center for Human Rights and the Anti-Racism Movement have also denounced these practices at the Caritas shelter.
Sources told Al Jazeera that Caritas signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Lebanese General Security bureau to use the shelter as an unofficial detention centre.
Head of the migrant department at Caritas, Hessen Sayyah, confirmed to Al Jazeera the organisation signed the MoU with General Security, but said claims the shelter acts as a detention facility “are false”.
Instead, the document details Caritas’ work at General Security’s official detention centres “to help prisoners and detainees,” and secondly, “to protect victims of human trafficking”, she said.
“[The domestic workers] are coming voluntarily and they can leave our shelter voluntarily. We are not a prison,” Sayyah told Al Jazeera over the phone.
She said residents cannot go out and return whenever they want for the protection of the other victims in the shelter.
“We can’t put in danger any of the victims who are in the Caritas shelter by providing the address or having the shelter known as a shelter. This is a shelter protecting victims of human trafficking, we have people with severe cases and high-protection risk.”
Hessen Sayyah also said month-long delays in repatriating domestic workers are common because of legal obstacles.
Kenyan consulate authorities say these include the criminal cases filed against the workers by their employers, difficulties in retrieving the workers’ passports, and fundraising to pay for their plane tickets.
About 100 women are currently in the Caritas shelter, including 20 other Kenyan domestic workers, according to Caritas, who should fly home before the end of January. Out of the six women who left Caritas to protest, three have been repatriated.
But dozens of other women who were not in Caritas are still demanding to go home.
During an interview with Al Jazeera, the Kenyan Honorary Consul Sayed Chalouhi said most of the protesters “don’t want to go home” and are being paid or supported by covert NGOs who only want to attract negative attention to Lebanon’s kafala system. Al Jazeera could not independently verify these claims.
Protesters refused the consulate’s initial offer to provide them with shelter. Since Al Jazeera interviewed Chalouhi, 23 women accepted a plan to move into an apartment provided by the consulate. They say they have been told their repatriation cases are being analysed.
“The majority of girls run away from their employer only to work in the black market, to do prostitution or drug business,” Chalouhi said at his residence.
“Half of the ladies in front of the embassy at night, they go to do prostitution. If you go to Nairobi you will see how Nairobi is at night,” the honorary consul added.
“These people are really ungrateful,” he said, explaining how he has been personally paying for the repatriation expenses for thousands of women for years because of a lack of support from Kenyan authorities. “Most of them, 90 percent of them, they’ve been calling me ‘daddy’, ‘dad’ for years. This is how you treat me?”
Meanwhile, the Kenyan consulate remains shut because of security concerns after protesters attacked the car of one of its employees.
‘My mind is far away’
Outside the consulate, two women use a camping-gas stove to warm up tea when Jasmine, 21, arrives carrying her bags. She ran away from her employer that day, after working for three months in forced-labour conditions.
“I’m tired, I feel the body aches, I’m weak. Yesterday I told my boss my hand is painful,” she said as she showed Al Jazeera her palms riddled with bloody blisters.
Jasmine told her boss and agent she wanted to return to Kenya to care for her one-year-old son. When she was not allowed, she fled. Like Sarah, she also signed a contract in Arabic, does not know where her passport is, and has not been paid. She is also afraid to tell her agency she left in fear they will take her back to work.
“My mind is confused, my mind is far away. I’m not that OK,” she said as she put her backpack inside of the consulate lobby and prepared for the journey ahead in trying to be repatriated.
“I didn’t come here to run away. But I’m very worried because of my son. My only concern is to go to Kenya as soon as possible because of my son.”
Names of domestic workers in this article were changed to protect their identity