By Raiyah Butt
Lebanon hosts 250,000 migrant workers, mostly coming from African and Asian countries, who have been amongst the worst affected first by Covid-19 and now by the explosion.
2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, 160 people found dead, 300,000 displaced, 6000 injured, countless more missing. The explosion in Beirut caused unfathomable destruction, but we cannot just call this a simple tragedy. It has been reported that Lebanese government officials had known about the ammonium nitrate as long as six years ago, and the dangers of it being left in a warehouse. Protests erupted on Saturday, and Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his government have resigned after such clear negligence. However, the explosion is just one of many reasons why protesters are angry.
The devastation caused is exacerbated by Lebanon’s dire economic situation, as the economy was already in crisis. Last October, Lebanon saw nationwide protests against government corruption, rising food prices, poor waste management, and a failing currency. Subsequently, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country hard; the unemployment rate surged past 30%. The explosion decimated the port which Lebanon heavily relies on to import food, medicine and other materials, and destroyed 85% of grain stocks. Protesters have been met with tear gas and rubber bullets by the security forces, with over 700 people being wounded. Hospitals are already overwhelmed, and now face the additional challenge of accommodating those caught in the blast and injured protesters.
Whilst this may seem like a crisis internal to Lebanon, there is an unseen global dimension. Lebanon hosts 250,000 migrant workers, mostly coming from African and Asian countries, who have been amongst the worst affected first by Covid-19 and now by the explosion. According to government data, Lebanon is home to 150,000 Bangladeshi workers, and at least 4 were killed in the blast, as well as 100 injured. Migrant workers are trapped in the kafala system, an exploitative practice which leaves them with little labour rights. Migrant workers are excluded from Lebanese law, instead kafala ties the legal residency of the worker to their contractual relationship with the employer, meaning that the employer can determine the migration status of an employee. Amnesty International investigated the abuse of the kafala system, finding migrant workers are subjected to extreme working hours, restrictions on their movement and communication, food deprivation, and threatened with deportation if they disobeyed their employer.
The economic crisis and Covid-19 pandemic left many migrant workers in Lebanon unemployed and struggling to afford food and basic necessities. Now with the explosion destroying the main port, migrant workers are part of a huge homelessness crisis, abandoned by their employers and at more risk than ever.
Even before the pandemic, as many as 30,000 Bangladeshi workers in Lebanon were undocumented, a situation which has worsened now and creates difficulties in finding those missing due to the explosion, those in the hospital or left homeless.
It’s not just Bangladeshi workers who face such hardship, but workers from Ethiopia, Nigeria, the Philippines, and more. Lebanon is also home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 270,000 Palestinian refugees. Alongside Lebanese citizens, they all face extreme hardship and destitution because of the failures of the government to protect them. This is why Lebanon needs global attention, because of the global repercussions of the explosion. World leaders have pledged millions in aid, but what has been called for is major reform. Diab stated that he wants to “take a step back” so he can “fight the battle for change” alongside people, but Lebanon has been plagued by false promises from its leaders. Whilst the people of Lebanon are on the streets rebuilding their city, we must stand with them whilst they await radical change.