Monday, April 26, 2010

The Daily Star: Caritas safe house fights for rights of migrant workers

Caritas Migrant Center is playing an important role for migrant workers, but it's not all as good they portray it. Caritas talks below of a landmark ruling relevant to domestic workers, while having undermined a landmark ruling in the case of an arbitrarily detained Iraqi refugee. Collusion with the General Security, who has given Caritas the privilege to enter their prisons, is inevitable.

The numbers of the Caritas hotline for Migrant Workers are 03 092 538.

Caritas safe house fights for rights of migrant workers
By Evita Mouawad, Special to The Daily Star, Monday, April 26, 2010

BEIRUT: In December, a landmark for migrant workers’ rights in Lebanon was achieved when Filipino worker Jonalin Malibago won her case against her employer, who physically abused her for years, and who was later sentenced to two weeks of prison. Malibago was assisted by the Caritas Migrant Center and despite the leniency of the abuser’s sentence, the outcome of the case gave hope to all migrant workers who have been or are still subject to abuse.

The Caritas Migrant Center has been a leading advocate for migrant workers’ rights since 1994, and in 2005, the center’s countertrafficking project established a safe house where workers who have been victims of abuse can take refuge awaiting the outcome of their trial.

The opening of the shelter was accompanied by a memorandum of understanding with General Security, which has been cooperating with the center to solve abuse cases.

“We do not have the legal right to investigate a case of abuse,” said Colette Najem, project coordinator, “that is why all investigations and contact with the abuser is done through General Security.”

The safe house was established in order to protect migrant workers from psychological, financial or physical abuse. Najem noted that the center goes by the American Congress’ definition of migrant workers’ rights, which stresses the respect of basic human rights and the availability of the crucial basic necessities for workers such as food, water and a bed to sleep on.

The safe house is comprised of four social workers who help victims follow up with their cases, experienced lawyers who attend court dates and give the necessary legal advice, psychologists who help the victims overcome the trauma, and an administrative staff who is on site 24 hours a day.

After victims have been identified by an embassy, agency or even General Security, a proper investigation is conducted to determine whether or not the case is credible.

“We do not act on anything without the workers’ consent first” said Najem. “We explain everything to them in detail and make them aware of the services we offer, including the option of the safe house. They are the ones who decide on how to proceed. Some do not even wish to go to the police … each case is different from the other.”

The center has also installed a 24-hour hotline for migrant workers who have been victims of abuse.

The memorandum of understanding with General Security states that victims may stay up to a maximum of two months at the safe house. Najem explained that the deadline was set up first of all to push for the legal cases to be dealt with more rapidly, and also for the visitors of the safe house to feel reassured that they will not be obliged to stay there forever. “In a way, this time limit gives them hope that in a couple of months a solution will be found to their case,” she said.

The number of visitors of the safe house can range from five to 30 depending on the number of cases. They participate in cooking and house chores, while the staff organizes arts and crafts activities or information sessions about interesting subjects such as health, to encourage visitors to keep a positive attitude.

The Migrant Center has been raising awareness of its services among migrant workers through embassies and agencies, but their existence has also been reaffirmed through word of mouth, which is effective in a small country like Lebanon.

Najem also revealed that some agencies in countries such as Nepal have been giving the Migrant Center’s hotline number to workers prior to their departure for Lebanon, just in case something goes wrong during their stay.

Usually, workers who have visited the shelter choose to go back to their country after their two-month stay. However, if their case has not yet reached a verdict, the Caritas Migrant Center continues to legally represent the workers in their absence and updates them on any progress by phone or email.

Many migrant workers who have been victims of abuse choose to return to Lebanon despite their traumatizing experience. According to Najem, this is due primarily to rising poverty in their home countries, and also because their family is often entirely dependent on them as a source of income.

According to Najem, the judiciary has been increasingly cooperating with the Migrant Center and successes are being achieved, despite the corrupt nature of a legal system where connections are king.

The success of cases like that of Malibago has sparked hope among the Migrant Center team and the workers they assist.

“And what is most important is that we are noticing a change in the Lebanese mentality and attitude towards migrant workers,” said Najem with a proud smile. “Most of our callers lately have been Lebanese who are concerned about the fate of migrant workers they know from their neighborhoods or workplaces … it shows that people are caring more and more about this cause.”

The numbers of the Caritas hotline for Migrant Workers are 03 092 538.

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