Migrants in Lebanon seek help for mental woes - GulfToday

Migrants in Lebanon seek help for mental woes

Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Syrian refugees sit together in a tent at the Lebanese border town of Arsal. File/Reuters

Few countries would like to face the conditions Lebanon is facing at the moment. It is a nation virtually under siege, bearing the brunt of economic and, due to the pandemic, health woes. It has been battered by economic ruin, suffering from a dire paucity of dollars and drowning in debt. Then there was a gigantic explosion that completely shattered parts of the capital Beirut. It killed 200 people, injured 6,000 and left 300,000 homeless, leaving many questions unanswered. What’s making things worse is the coronavirus which is taking a heavy toll not just on the country but the whole world over.

One section of society that has been badly hit by the pandemic is the poor migrant worker, who just cannot find the care they need if he or she tests positive. Lebanon has registered 328,016 cases and 3,803 deaths.

There are hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Lebanon but according to rights groups its labour laws do not provide adequate protection or health cover.

Hospitals are running out of capacity to treat critically ill patients as a result of a spike in infections since the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Migrant workers who test positive can quarantine at a centre in southern Lebanon, or will be sent to public hospitals where Medecins Sans Frontieres makes sure they are given care.

Increasing numbers of migrant maids are seeking help for conditions such as panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the crisis worsens the plight of workers trapped in a system akin to modern slavery.

Things got much worse in April, when the country’s financial crisis deepened just as it went into lockdown, prompting Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) – Doctors Without Borders – to set up a medical helpline for migrant workers.

By the end of November, 170 migrant workers had requested mental health support through the helpline, 60 per cent of whom were considered to be in severe psychological distress.

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.

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.

It is a workforce that is highly vulnerable and utterly at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. 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 prone to psychological problems, charities say.

“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.

Desperate workers from Africa and Asia are turning to charities and aid organisations.

For there seems to be some hope from these groups. The Siblin Isolation Centre, run in partnership with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, helps curb transmission of the virus in communities where people cannot isolate, MSF says.

One migrant worker was relieved. “I felt that I had found my place, their human interaction is great,” she said after recovering. “I left in tears. I wanted to stay in that place.”

Despite the relief, the problem is that she finds no hope in the country. She plans to fly home. “There’s nothing left in Lebanon ... and everything is getting worse,” she said.

That is the sad truth. If things don’t improve soon, their conditions might get worse.

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