Beirut, Lebanon – The twin explosions in the Port of Beirut on August 4 exacerbated Lebanon’s deepening economic crisis, stranding thousands of destitute migrant workers without work and no clear route home.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates 24,500 migrants lost their jobs, homes or were directly affected in other ways by the Beirut blasts.
Lebanon’s 400,000 migrant workers hail from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Bangladesh, among other countries. They have taken great risks to work in Lebanon with hopes of earning US dollars and supporting their families back home.
Many came to Lebanon through the kafala system, a sponsorship-based employment scheme used by many countries in the Middle East that allows one to work while their employer doubles as their sponsor, handling their visa and legal status. While the system is intended to open jobs to migrants, it also exposes them to exploitation by placing great power in the hands of employers, many of whom confiscate their employees’ passports, making it extremely difficult to leave.
The economic crisis has now further destabilised the lives of many. The Lebanese pound has devalued by 80 percent since October 2019, leaving employers unable to pay wages and pushing migrant workers into debt, unable to pay for rent, food or other basic services, let alone send money to their families back home.
The rising number of evictions has forced many migrants to sleep in the streets, while others have pooled their money to rent rooms so small it is impossible to maintain physical distancing, creating potential breeding grounds for the spread of COVID-19.
Humanitarian agencies now worry the lack of sustainable employment and safe shelter will expose even more people to trafficking or abuse by their employers, forms of exploitation that already plagued the country’s migrant workers before the deadly blast.
Here are the faces of some of the migrant workers dwelling in the shadows of Beirut.
*Some names have been changed at their request