The term Kafala means ‘Sponsorship’ in Arabic. The Kafala system is a sponsorship system for migrant workers in Lebanon, as well as several other Arab countries, which governs migrant workers’ immigration, employment, residency and personal status in the country.

The responsibility for all matters relating to the MDWs falls under the purview of the sponsors, who are also the employers of the MDWs. The sponsors/employers have unchecked power over the MDWs’ lives in regards to their legal status, employment, health care, accommodation and private lives. This essentially gives impunity to employers to confiscate their passports, overwork them, deny their wages, deprive them of food and reasonable sleeping conditions and inflict physical and sexual abuse. In addition, the Kafala system does not allow for workers to change jobs or leave the country without the employers’ consent. 

In short, the Kafala system is an exploitative system that gives employers tremendous and often-abused power over migrant women who work, sleep and eat in the homes of these same employers.

In many cases, the Kafala system enables or promotes the practice of one if not most of the previously mentioned international legal concepts, including human trafficking, modern-day slavery, debt bondage and domestic servitude. 

It is clear that the Kafala system is not justifiable under international human rights law and the governments of Lebanon and other Arab countries applying it as an immigration system for cheap labour should be held responsible. The international community should encourage these governments to abolish the Kafala system completely and replace it with a fair and just immigration and labour system based on international human rights law and international labour standards.

Labour migration is defined as the movement of persons from one state to another, or within their own country of residence, for the purpose of employment. Employment is one of the primary drivers of contemporary migration. It can involve paid employment or self-employment, and it can occur on a temporary or longer-term basis. As many as 169 million international migrants were either employed or seeking employment in a country of destination, accounting for 62 per cent of international migrants worldwide.

Source: International Organisation for Migration

In theory, the migration of workers from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia to Lebanon falls under the definition of Labour Migration. However, due to the exclusion of migrant workers from  Lebanese Labour Law and the Kafala’s system being based on restrictive private sponsorship by employers, its practice doesn’t fulfil the international legal standards of protection of migrant workers. The movement towards the abolition of the Kafala system doesn’t imply the prevention of labour migration but rather intends to provide government regulations and oversight according to labour and migration standards of international law. As long as the system continues to exist under its current set-up, it should be considered as state-sponsored labour exploitation enabling modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

Bonded labour, also known as debt bondage, occurs when people agree to unpaid labour as a security or amortisation against a loan or debt they either assumed themselves or on behalf of someone else. In theory, it is presented as an employment agreement, however, based on unpaid work to repay a debt, which oftentimes is not achievable and with work being under dangerous or extreme conditions.

The difficulty of settling the debts and the potential incurrence of additional debts often lead to a perpetuation of the exploitative situation.

Source: End Slavery Now

The Kafala system’s illegal and unethical recruitment practices include agencies in sending countries recruiting Migrant Domestic Workers with the requirement of upfront recruitment fees, which leads to many MDWs taking up loans with the agencies themselves, pushing them into the trap of debt bondage. 

In some cases the MDWs covered the expenses of their legal/travel documents, flights and administrative fees, unaware that their employers themselves cover some of these fees.

There is a proverb in Arabic:

لم أشرب ماء البحر مثلك كل يوم، لكني أعرف شعور وطعم الملح في الفم

I never drank seawater like you every day, but I am familiar with its saltiness in my mouth.

I believe that the essence of this proverb is at the core of why I have dedicated my life to fighting for human rights. It encompasses the idea of empathy or understanding for another person’s suffering despite not having the exact same experience. It is about relating to the struggle or hardships of others to the extent that it feels part of one’s own experience. 

I remember my first encounter with the concept of humanitarian assistance and civil society organisations. I was only ten years old when a Japanese organisation visited the Palestinian refugee camp where I lived in the heart of Beirut. During an activity for children, we stood in a circle and were asked to share our dreams for when we grow up. I immediately knew that my goal was to help people. So I stepped into the circle and proclaimed that I wanted to become a nurse because, as Palestinians, we often don’t receive medical attention. 

I will never forget the moment when the interpreter, a Palestinian man, chuckled and told me that I would change my mind the minute I reached adulthood and would most likely end up in my husband’s kitchen. This moment became my awakening as an advocate of women’s rights with the ultimate goal of breaking out of these patriarchal limitations that my own circumstances would force on me. 

As a Palestinian, I am fully aware of the limitations that the Lebanese state has put in place, with many of my rights being denied. Yet, these limitations and this lived experience of marginalisation are what push me to advocate for the rights of others. The thought that whatever little I can do, whatever problem I can resolve, and whatever help I can provide gives me the power and satisfaction to continue. I refuse to watch the perpetuation of injustice passively and instead want to be actively involved in the process towards change and justice. 

This is what has led me to be part of the movement of working for Migrant Domestic Workers’ rights and against the Kafala system. I do understand the feeling of being away from my own land in a strange and hostile environment. I experienced the hardships of being a refugee in Europe and being reduced to a country of origin, which eventually also led to my decision to return to Lebanon. 

I work for rights while at the same time don’t have rights myself. I don’t have a passport, and I am stuck as a Palestinian refugee in a country that treats me as a nuisance. This reality I am living is shared with the MDWs in Lebanon. I want to liberate myself from the consequences of Zionism, the same way I want migrant workers to be liberated from the Kafala system. 

Palestinians don’t have the protection of the Lebanese labour laws. I share this main concern of exclusion with the MDW community that has repeatedly campaigned for change and inclusion under the legal framework of labour protection.

In Arabic, we say:

نقطة ماء في بحرك

Which translates into “A drop of water in your sea.” This expression is used to convey the idea that something is a tiny or insignificant part within a much larger and more significant context. In the Lebanese context, my drop of injustice is a drop in the sea of injustices that exist. I did suffer a drop of your suffering, so I do know its bitter taste.

Particularly, the limited access to services and the denial of rights are experiences I know myself, which is why I want to work against them on behalf of the MDW community in Lebanon.

This year, the experience of being Palestinian and working in the human rights field feels both cynical as well as necessary. The same colonial powers that deny me my right to return are also responsible for the capitalist exploitation and systemic abuse of women of colour under the Kafala system. The experience of Palestinian women being reduced to victimhood is a similar experience of MDWs being reduced to commodities in the households of the rich and privileged. 

My faith in human rights has been shaken. The hopes I previously held on reclaiming the right to my land and fighting for the right to existence have been dampened by the current situation. This also has had a similar effect on my hopes of abolishing the Kafala system and the reality of achieving the goals of the MDW community towards true and real change.

If there is no justice for innocent civilians suffering under the relentless bombing in Gaza, then how can I hope for justice for the women trapped under the Kafala system? 

يقولون إن فاقد الشيء لا يعطيه لا والف لا، فاقد الشيء يعطيه وبقوة

They say someone who misses something can’t give (offer) it. I say, on the contrary, someone who misses something offers it a thousand times more.

This expression conveys the irony or contradiction of privileges, suggesting that those who lack something are often more generous in giving it to others. Although I am struggling for my own rights, I also work even harder for the struggle of other people’s rights. 

We share the same trauma of violence by white supremacy, colonialism and patriarchy. The perpetrators and the circumstances might differ, but the trauma experienced is the same, which is why the fight for justice and liberation is the same.

MWA developed a short brief focusing on the role of the IOM Lebanon Office following several concerns expressed by partner organisations. The brief summarises the challenges and concerns MWA has found through its work with migrant domestic workers, their communities, and CSOs. It aims to shed light on gaps within IOM’s system and work that lead to confusion, as experienced by MDWs in Lebanon. The brief is intended to advise IOM in its work by providing recommendations on current challenges.

On the occasion of International Day For the Abolition of Slavery, MWA is launching its report on the plight of Kenyan Migrant Domestic Workers on their migration journey to Lebanon. The report is the first of MWA’s In-Focus research series committed to providing an in-depth understanding of localised contexts and key drivers of migration in sending countries, leading MDWs to travel to Lebanon, as well as their experiences under the Kafala system in Lebanon.

In light of recent regional developments, MWA has contacted Embassies and Consulates to inquire about potential evacuation plans for Migrants should the situation escalate in Lebanon. We have compiled and saved the series of statements issued in a public Google Drive folder. We encourage the dissemination of this document to all Migrant Domestic Worker communities in Lebanon and recommend following the Embassies and Consulates on Facebook for updates.

J’ai Peur – Viany

Partout où le mensonge devient la seule façon de convaincre, il y a trafic .

Partout où il y a esclavage il y a trafic.

Ou il y a exploitation il y a trafic.

Ou il y a escroquerie  il y a trafic.

J’étais en première année BTS (Brevet de Technicien Supérieur) à l’université de Douala au Cameroun et ma famille m’a parlé du Liban. Elle aussi avait entendu parler du Liban de la voisine et la voisine avait entendu parler du Liban d’une femme qui avait été au Liban et qui est revenu au Cameroun.

(J’aime bien le fait que ça soit moi qui écrive ma propre histoire. Je suis fatigué des mensonges et des gens qui se disent bienveillants et capables de décider pour nous).

Après plusieurs tentatives de me convaincre j’ai accepté de voyager pour le Liban. Sans vraiment savoir ce qui m’attendait. 

Le gros argument qui m’abreuvait quand j’avais soif, me soutenait quand couchée au coin de la cuisine le bruit de la machine à laver du frigo et du four fusionnaient et m’empêchait de dormir. Je pensais à cette promesse. Cette promesse que m’avais faite cette femme, le premier maillon de la chaine, celle qui une foie de retour au Cameroun s’est convertie en trafiquante: “tu vas travailler pour 6 mois et avec ton salaire tu pourras dire à ta madame de faire tes papiers pour que tu ailles en France continuer tes études de couture”.   Tout mon voyage prenait appui sur cette promesse la. J’avais pris avec moi tous mes diplômes et mes documents qui pouvaient être utiles pour une inscription. J’avais apporté avec moi mes plus belles créations de couture. J’avais apporté aussi mon matériel  pour éviter de dépenser trop en fournitures quand je devais reprendre les cours. 

Pendant mes 6 premiers mois de contrat j’étais comme dans un coma profond. J’étais concentrée sur le jour où je devais arriver à 6 mois. Je ne voyais rien et ne comprenais rien, je vivais dans le futur. Les maltraitances étaient sans effet. J’avais le corps et le cerveau sous anesthésie. 

Mes camarades à l’université au Cameroun et même les professeurs me demandais comment j’allais, mais j’étais concentré sur un objectif plus grand. Tout allait changer après 6 mois. 

Et oui… tout à changé après ces 6 mois. 

Je me souviens encore de comment ils étaient assis au salon tous les deux un vendredi à 17h00: “Mme, s’il vous plaît, j’ai déjà passé 6 mois chez vous est ce que vous pouvez utiliser mon salaire pour faire mes papiers et me faire voyager pour la France pour que j’aille continuer mes études?” Les regards se mélangent, un silence s’installe pour au moins une minute. 

De mon côté, c’était une évidence qu’elle devait dire oui. Je n’avais qu’à  prier pour que la procédure soit rapide.  

C’est là que ma Madame me demande “Qui t’as dit ça?”.  “C’est la fille qui m’a fait venir au Liba[…]. A peine j’ai fini qu’elle m’interrompt. “Tu es venu ici travailler et tu n’as rien a faire a part travailler. Tu ne peux pas sortir sans mon accord. Tu es à moi et si je pouvais c’est moi qui devait aller en France mais pas toi. Ça fait longtemps que j’essaye. Et ça coûte trop cher.” 

J’avais 21 ans. 

Ce jour là je suis sorti du coma 

L’anesthésie était finie. 

Place à la réalité du système Kafala.

En toute sincérité même à un Libanais je ne le souhaite  pas. 

Le système Kafala c’est de l’esclavage et c’est de la traite d’être humain. 

C’est lourd à lire et à dire mais c’est vrai ça existe. Beaucoup s’enrichissent et ont une vie de rêve grâce à la souffrance des femmes comme moi. Mais je ne le souhaite à personne, même pas à une Libanaise. 

Si chaque victime mettait par écrit son expérience, tu pourras comprendre comment chaque vol qui se pose au sol dans un pays qui applique le système Kafala fait couler des larmes rouges à chaque fois. 

Nous sommes mortes tout en étant vivantes.

Tu le sais, et moi aussi tu ne fais rien et moi j’ai peur.

Viany De Marceau


I am afraid by Viany 

When lies are the only way to convince, there is trafficking. 

Where there is slavery, there is trafficking

Where there is exploitation, there is trafficking

Where there is fraud, there is trafficking. 

I was in my first year of my college degree at the University of Douala in Cameroon when my family spoke to me about Lebanon. They had also heard of Lebanon from the neighbour, and the neighbour had heard of it from a woman who had been there and came back to Cameroon. 

(I like the fact that it is me who gets to write my own story. I am tired of the lies, and of people who pretend to care yet decide for us). 

After several attempts to convince me, I accepted to travel to Lebanon. Without really knowing what awaited me.

The biggest argument which quenched my thirst, which gave me strength when I was lying down in the corner of the kitchen with the sound of the washing machine, fridge, and oven –  all together preventing me from falling asleep. I would think of the promise. The promise that this woman made to me, the first link in the chain, who after returning to Cameroon became a trafficker herself: “You will work for 6 months and with your salary you will be able to tell the Madame to do your papers and go to France to finish your studies in fashion design”. 

My entire trip was based on this promise. I had taken with me all my diplomas and relevant documents that could help with my registration. I had also brought with me all my most beautiful fashion designs and all the sewing material I would need to save some money when I start my course. 

During those first  6 months of my contract I was in a deep coma. I was focused on the day the 6 months would arrive. I didn’t see anything nor understood anything. I was living in the future. The abuse I faced didn’t affect me. My body and mind were under anaesthesia. 

My university friends in Cameroon and even the professors were asking about me  but I was just focused on a bigger goal. Everything would change after 6 months. 

And yes… Everything did change after those 6 months. 

I still remember how they were seated in the living room, on a Friday at 5pm. “Madame, please, I already spent 6 months with you. Can you please use my salary to do my papers and pay for my trip to France so I can continue my studies?” 

Looks were exchanged, and a silence took place for at least one minute. 

For me, it was obvious she would say yes. I just had to keep praying for the process to be quick. 

This was when my Madame asked me “Who told you this?” “The girl who told me to come to Leba[…]I barely started my sentence, when she interrupted: “You came here to work, and you have nothing else to do but work. You cannot leave without my permission. You are mine. If I could, I would be the one to go to France, not you. I have been trying for a long time and it costs a lot of money”.

I was 21 years old. 

That day, I woke up from the coma. 

The anaesthesia wore off. 

The reality of the Kafala system took over.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, not even a Lebanese. 

The Kafala system is a form of slavery and human trafficking. 

It’s hard to read and to write, but it’s true, and it exists. Many profit from it and have a dream life thanks to the suffering of women like me. 

But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, not even a Lebanese woman. 

If every victim could write about her experience, you could understand how each flight that lands in a country that uses the Kafala system causes many tears of blood, every single time. 

We are dead, whilst still alive. 

You know it, and me too,

You don’t do anything about it, 

And me, I am afraid. 

Viany De Marceau

They say, the most important conversation is often the most difficult one to have.

I’ll argue the most important stories are often the most difficult ones to write.

The journey of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and racialized people born in Lebanon resembles the one of Theseus and the minotaur Greek mythology tale.

It is the epitome of navigating a wild labyrinth while attempting self-protection and preservation from systematic and systemic racism.

The idea that we are not affected by racism equally holds partial truth!

In our case, as children of MDWs (Migrant Domestic Workers) born in Lebanon, we certainly share in common a dualistic experience of anger against our parents’ malevolent years of oppression within the Kafala system, and in contrast the benevolent reaction of few liberal citizens who admire our hybrid identity.

Our mastery of Arabic and other spoken languages intrigues…

Locals ponder about our deemed mysterious identity: we are labeled as African, Asian, American or coming from a remote island, but rarely the optionality of being born in Lebanon occurs.

Our livelihood is embedded on a constant steady walk in between edges: a blossoming interpersonal activism while fighting racism, inequity and stereotypes.

The fight to exist and coexist drains our spirit! We dream to enjoy the freedom of being human, holding equal rights, striving, not worrying about residential permits or our parent’s legal statuses, precarity, fighting sexual harassers, being followed around in the streets, bullies at school, university, the lack of job opportunities, being in the sideline while we are aware of our richness, capabilities, and high potential.

The fighting loop may at times drain our spirit, however we resist, and continue to resist! Children of migrant domestic workers resist compliance, systemic racism, generalization, biases experienced from locals.

We opt for intentional dissociation from a generalized one-size-fits all mentality through finding solace within our safe community and the what we call “good ones”; they are our childhood Lebanese friends, and many uplifting souls we’ve encountered through the years. However, the retreat is short-lived, because we are born front fighters – being in between many worlds: the migrant domestic workers community and “our not our country” reality!

As we mature, we relinquish power and settle for belonging to humanity as a whole. The soul search culminates once we unlock self-appropriation, acceptance and embrace being us – BIPOC born in Lebanon!

It is not a secret that migrant domestic workers in Lebanon suffer from discriminatory labels – a trendy curse within a country practicing and endorsing modern-day slavery.

I remember my first encounter with racism; I was 5 years old, and seriously questioned why my bullies would scream: “Sri Lankiye”, it was irrelevant, I’m not from Sri Lanka.

The bullies made sure to emote their intentions: the nationality; “Sri Lankiye” was stripped from it meaning, it was transformed into a racial slur.

To add context, in the nineties a high number of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon were Sri Lankan, currently the majority of MDWs migrate from Ethiopia and the Philippines.

BIPOC witness how racial slurs mirror the racial origin of each migration waves! A common verbal racial slur we experience is being called “Habashiye” referring to Habesha, the people of Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage. “Habashiye” replaced “Sri Lankiye” as a mean of inducing disdain through altering the true etymology of a beautiful word.

The question is how to find a place when there’s no space for children of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon?  

The hard truth is you carve your own space within a feeble system. We tap into our unrecognized potential. We are given agencies and capabilities to change policies, fight against systemic racism, societal practices and attitudes embedded in discrimination.

Education and constant self-actualization are one crucial weapon. This will depend certainly on a multitude of external factors like the oppressive system shift, access to education, one’s upbringing, level of administrative challenges, undocumented or documented parents, life experiences, environments, outside influences, beliefs, and numerous other metrics.

On International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we children of migrant domestic workers dream of visibility, respect, and holding mutual rights as any other individual. We have names and multiple identities that produce, if allowed positive diversity.

We love Fairouz and Tems, we want to live in peace and not be shattered in pieces by the Kafala system!

B.K. – Child of a Migrant Domestic Worker in Lebanon

A Call for Intersectionality & Inclusion

The Kafala system is an oppressive, racist, patriarchal structure that exploits and abuses migrant workers that disproportionately affects women of colour. The system relies heavily on human trafficking and other organised crimes, exposing migrant domestic workers to severe human rights violations. Women of colour from South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have been lured and trapped by the system for several decades now without any real attempts towards  sustainable change . Migrant Workers’ Action believes that unless a new movement of solidarity and support emerges to amplify and include Migrant Domestic Workers in all human rights conversations happening in Lebanon, the status quo of abuse and exploitation under the Kafala system will continue unchallenged.

Throughout the years, Lebanon has developed an active and engaging civil society space advocating for women’s rights among many other issues. However, within the shadows of this flourishing civil society work, exists the persistent and problematic normalisation of racism and exploitation of migrant domestic workers through the Kafala system, which remains condoned and unaddressed. The Lebanese feminist movement has many challenges and barriers to tackle.  It is in this effort towards equity and liberation that the movement should adopt   an intersectional and inclusive approach including refugees, members of the LGBTQIA community as well as migrant domestic workers. 

The adversities women in Lebanon experience are harsh, unforgiving and cruel. For migrant domestic workers this reality is even more harsh. Their predicament is one of forced labour, racial, sexual and physical abuse in a legal system sanctioned by the government and normalised by the local population perpetuating a culture of impunity. Failing to take into consideration the intersections of migrant domestic workers may lead to the Lebanese Women’s Rights movement to be exclusionary thus capitulating to elements of the patriarchy. Migrant Domestic Workers are women of colour, who are marginalised by multiple systems of oppression, both in their country of origin as well as Lebanon. Addressing their needs and challenges requires the Lebanese civil society as well as international actors to adopt an intersectional approach to women’s rights, as it allows the movements to take into account the Migrant Domestic Workers’ multiple intersecting experiences and identities.

It is important to note that focusing on an intersectional feminist approach does not negate the existence of Lebanese women’s struggles but instead offers a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to the struggle for women’s rights within the country that include the migrant and refugee population. 

Migrant Workers’ Actions invites the  women’s rights movement to reach out to the  extensive networks of migrant domestic workers communities in Lebanon  and to build  bridges working  together towards achieving equity and freedom.