On 23 July 2020, a group of Sierra Leonean women stranded in Lebanon, Thewanthdean (meaning "United sisters" or "One sisterhood"), released a song they wrote to express their daily struggles in the country.
Since the beginning of June 2020, the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) has received an unprecedented number of calls from Sierra Leonean domestic workers trapped in Lebanon, with little chance of going back home. Lebanon’s economic collapse, which preceded the coronavirus lockdown, has pushed thousands of migrant workers of different nationalities into unemployment since October 2019.
Sierra Leoneans are officially banned from migrating to Lebanon as domestic workers, except when they are accompanying a Lebanese family from Sierra Leone to Lebanon. This means that most domestic workers from Sierra Leone in Lebanon are victims of some form of human trafficking. On June 2nd 2020, the Lebanese Ambassador to Sierra Leone himself openly declared on a show hosted by SL News Blog that “None of the Sierra Leonean girls are allowed to go there just by themselves. They will be exposed to human trafficking, they will be vulnerable, they will be exposed to abuse […] they will be trapped.”
In mid-June 2020, ARM conducted a rapid assessment of 53 Sierra Leonean women and found that 70% of them have been thrown out on the streets by their employers or recruitment agency, while 15% of them fled their employer’s house after being abused verbally, physically, or sexually by their employers. The remaining 15% used to work as freelancers but had been unemployed for months. 75% of the workers reported that their employers did not pay them in full for their labour, some of them accumulating over one year of unpaid wages.
83% of the respondents said that they want to go back to Sierra Leone. However, none of the respondents had their passports on them or money to travel. Under the Standard Unified Contract for domestic workers, employers are responsible for providing the cost of the ticket. By throwing out workers on the streets without wages or money for the ticket, employers are in clear violation of the contract as well as basic human and labour rights. Employers must be held legally accountable for their actions and must be forced to pay their dues in full. However, complaint mechanisms through the Lebanese Ministry of Labour and the General Security can take up to 3 months and are not always effective. This means that employers are abandoning workers and making them homeless without any action from the Lebanese government to stop this.
After the COVID-19 outbreak, the Sierra Leone government placed restrictions on entry into the country by land and on international flights. However, the president recently declared that restrictions will be eased and commercial flights will “resume in the very short run.” There have been direct flights from Freetown to Beirut, by Middle East Airlines, despite restrictions at the Beirut airport. The Lebanese Ambassador to Sierra Leone claimed that he would “not spare any efforts to bring Sierra Leoneans back from Lebanon.” The Sierra Leone Committee in Lebanon submitted to the Ambassador a list of 70 workers who wish to return to their country. The Ambassador reportedly promised to repatriate 15 of them on June 15 on the same flight that brought passengers from Sierra Leone to Lebanon on June 19. The 15 workers had been selected from the group of 70 for that flight because they had valid passports on them. However, for unknown reasons, the repatriation of these 15 workers was cancelled and the plane reportedly left from Beirut to Freetown empty, without any passengers. Wasting flights at this time of crisis is not acceptable.
Abandoned and unemployed Sierra Leonean workers are currently renting apartments together, living in unbearable conditions with 10-30 people in one apartment. They are paying rent with the help of the Sierra Leonean Committee in Lebanon, as well as individual donors. More than 75 workers are currently hosted by the Sierra Leone Committee’s shelters.
The situation is getting worse every day.
Providing donations for rent long-term is not sustainable.
The only real solution is to evacuate migrant workers from Lebanon as soon as possible.
We call on the Lebanese government, and particularly on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Labour to:
- Immediately devise an evacuation plan for Sierra Leonean workers trapped in the country, in coordination with the Sierra Leone government and the International Organization for Migration;
- Facilitate the exit of Sierra Leoneans from Lebanon through exempting them from any penalty fees for overstayed residence permit and speeding up the process of granting exit clearance for all Sierra Leoneans;
- Create a clear complaints mechanism for workers to report unpaid wages and tickets or for NGOs to submit complaints against several employers at once;
- Expedite the negotiations with employers to retrieve the unpaid wages and cost of the tickets;
- Prosecute employers who fail to pay the wages and plane tickets that they are contractually obligated to pay.
We call on the Sierra Leone government, and particularly the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to:
- Immediately appoint an Honorary Consul to represent Sierra Leone in Lebanon as the former Consul has recently resigned and left the post vacant;
- Immediately devise an evacuation plan for Sierra Leonean workers trapped in Lebanon, in coordination with the International Organization for Migration;
- Immediately start the process to facilitate issuing temporary travel documents for Sierra Leoneans in Lebanon who are undocumented or whose official documents have been confiscated by their employers;
- Prioritize the return of Sierra Leonean citizens from Lebanon due to the severity of the crisis in the country and the dire situation they find themselves in;
- Pressure the Lebanese Ministry of Labour to retrieve the lost wages of the Sierra Leonean workers, as well as the cost of the tickets from their employers;
- Cover the cost of the tickets for workers in irregular status, in partnership with international donors and the International Organization for Migration.
We call on the International Organization for Migration to:
- Assist the government of Sierra Leone in planning the safe voluntary return of its citizens from Lebanon and negotiating with airlines to obtain the best possible prices for tickets from Lebanon to Sierra Leone;
- Assist the government of Sierra Leone in funding the safe voluntary return of Sierra Leoneans from Lebanon through its existing voluntary return programs;
- Launch an emergency appeal dedicated specifically to the voluntary return of migrants in crisis in Lebanon, given the urgency that is particular to the Lebanese context;
- Reevaluate their criteria for human trafficking as we believe they are too reductionist and do not reflect the magnitude of the problem of trafficking in persons from Sierra Leone to Lebanon.
We call on you collectively to join efforts to prevent hunger, homelessness, and death among the Sierra Leonean community in Lebanon.
Anti-Racism Movement, Lebanon
Domestic Helpers Organisation, Sierra Leone
For follow-up questions or meetings, kindly contact:
- Zeina Ammar, Advocacy Manager at Anti-Racism Movement | firstname.lastname@example.org | +961 71 126 772
- Chelcy Alma Heroe, Founder and CEO of the Domestic Helpers Organisation | email@example.com | +232 78 483573
- Lucy Turay, lead singer of Thewanthdean | +232 99 982860
 Video posted publicly by SL News Blog, 2 June 2020, https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=200666047647333&id=412301842256393
 “Sierra Leone Eases Coronavirus Lockdown Restrictions," Anadolu Agency, 23 June 2020, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/sierra-leone-eases-coronavirus-lockdown-restrictions/1887279#
 Flight ME590 Landed in Beirut at 2:11 AM on 19 June 2020 and Flight ME590 is expected to land in Beirut at 2:00 AM on 26 June 2020, https://www.flightradar24.com/data/flights/me590
 “Fear and Solidarity,” Paul Fargues and Aline Deschamps, Africa Is a Country, 30 April 2020, https://www.theelephant.info/op-eds/2020/05/09/trapped-the-plight-of-domestic-workers-in-lebanon/