Distressed domestic workers in Lebanon battle mental health crisis


An increasing number of migrant maids in Lebanon are seeking help for their mental health conditions as the worsening situation in the country resulted in panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), charities say.

The economic collapse, COVID-19 pandemic and a recent devastating explosion in the capital Beirut is worsening the plight of workers trapped in a system akin to modern-day slavery, right groups say.

“It’s so stressful when you think of all the suffering and all of the work and then they say they cannot pay you,” said Regina, a young mother from Sierra Leone who was forced to work for 21 hours a day.

Regina, who asked not to give her full name, has been staying in a shelter since running away from her employer last week with only the clothes she was standing in – penniless because her wages had not been paid for more than three months.

According to the country’s intelligence agency, an average of two migrant domestic workers dieseach week in Lebanon. Some fall from buildings during escape attempts or in cases that are ruled suicides – often with little investigation.

Things got much worse in April, when the country’s financial crisis deepened just as it went into lockdown, prompting Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to set up a medical helpline for migrant workers.

About 170 migrant workers had requested mental health support through the helpline by the end of November and 60% of whom were considered to be in severe psychological distress, said Antonin Guinche, a psychologist at MSF.

Fifty-four required psychiatric support and about a dozen of them needed hospitalisation, highlighting extreme psychological stress among migrant maids – many of whom come to Lebanon alone when still teenagers, said Guinche.

“(It is) a crucial period of life for a young woman to build her own identity … but all of a sudden they are detached from their families, their origins, their countries.

“Being stuck here alone affects their ability to integrate and all of this is punctuated by violent and traumatic experiences,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lebanon hosts about 250,000 foreign workers who are employed under the country’s kafala sponsorship system, which binds them to one employer and can lead to abuses, human rights groups say.

Many of the migrant maids have reported a heavier workload and increased abuse from employers as lockdown curbs and job losses keep many people at home all day.

A feeling of being trapped, rarely getting paid and being unable to buy basic goods or send money home to their families due to inflation has left an unprotected workforce increasingly vulnerable to psychological problems, charities say.

Some employers have simply abandoned their maids in the streets because they can no longer afford them.

“The main issue with COVID-19 was that lockdowns produced a surge in abuse against migrant workers,” said Sara Ahmaz, a mental health consultant for a number of Lebanese NGOs helping migrant workers.

She said the most common symptoms among abused maids included nightmares, trauma, panic attacks and insomnia.

Sarah, a migrant maid, said she felt trapped and isolated – unable even to tell her family back home about her suffering because she did not want them to worry.

“My mental health is so much more shaken lately,” said Sarah, whose name has been changed to protect her identity because she still lives with her employer.

“They’re always in the house and there is so much more work to do. I want to die. They used to be so nice, but now the economic crisis is affecting them and all of the bitterness is landing on me and they threaten me all the time,” she said.

Sarah has not been paid by for more than two months. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)