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Beirut Center Tackles Complex Migrant Cases

By David Snyder

After just 24 hours in Beirut's underground detention center, this new reality shows on Sara Smea's face*. Yesterday, she was a domestic worker in Lebanon, drawn 5 years ago from her native Philippines by the same needs that drive tens of thousands of young Asian women to the Middle East each year.

Detained migrant worker

A migrant worker is held at the detention center in Beirut until her case is cleared. "Once you have your ticket and your passport, you can leave," says a social worker with the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center. "But getting those can be difficult." Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"My mother is sick and too old to work, so I wanted to help my family," Sara says through tears.

Arriving in Lebanon legally to seek work in 2006, Sara and thousands of other migrants found themselves caught up in a war between Lebanon's Hezbollah militia and neighboring Israel. With homes across Lebanon being bombed, many migrants found themselves locked inside or outside—abandoned by their panicked employers, many of whom took their worker's legal papers with them. Unable to leave, Sara and others stayed on without passports. In doing so, they broke the law.

"During the war, my employer says, 'OK, you can go,' but I didn't even know where the embassy was," Sara says. "So I went to a friend's house and she found me some work, so I stayed. I had no idea it was illegal."

Getting Back Home

For the staff members of the Caritas Lebanon Migrants Center, it's a familiar story.

Based in an office in the detention center and supported by Catholic Relief Services, the center provides all manner of care and support to migrants, regardless of race or religion. Support ranges from supplying mattresses and toiletries to medical care at an on-site clinic. Perhaps most important, however, Caritas offers legal counsel to clear up the often complicated legal cases involving migrant workers. Frequently it's a matter of securing passports so the workers can return home.

Staff at Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center

The CRS-supported Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center provides personal care items and legal aid to migrants and refugees. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"It's not a jail, it's a detention center," says one of the center's social workers, who asked to remain anonymous. "Once you have your ticket and your passport, you can leave. But getting those can be difficult."

Caritas assigns each migrant a caseworker who records the details of detention. In cases in which a migrant worker has overstayed her visa, Caritas tries first to negotiate with former employers to return the passport and clear any legal charges or fines. In more serious cases, such as abuse at the hands of former employers, Caritas lawyers represent migrants in court if the case cannot be otherwise settled.

Detained by Lebanese police just 24 hours earlier, Sara says she had spent years trying to contact her employer, who, during the 2006 war, left the country with Sara's passport and no forwarding address or phone number. Her detention came about so swiftly, she is still trying to process her surroundings: sharing a cell with 16 other migrant women.

"Yesterday, there was a knock on the door. There were police, and they brought me here," Sara says. "I had only the clothes on my body."

Caritas staff will investigate Sara's case and those of the detained migrant workers. If her employer can be found and the passport returned, Sara can return home to the Philippines, or stay on in Lebanon and continue to work if her visa is reissued.

If not for the work of the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, many of these cases could drag on for years as migrants struggle to have their voices heard in the Lebanese legal system, which extends few rights to foreign migrants. For Sara, shaken badly by her experience and her future uncertain, her thoughts turn homeward to a family she has not seen in 5 years.

"My parents are sick, and I don't know how long I will be here," Sara says. "I just pray to God and hope he is near."

*Name has been changed.

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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