Migrant workers flee Lebanon

BEIRUT — Weeks after the sea exodus of Westerners from Lebanon, hundreds of poor migrant workers are leaving daily by bus to escape Israeli bombardment even if they face more war at home.

“I thought it would end but it never did,” said Chamina Nroshini, a Sri Lankan who has worked for two years in Lebanon as a   housemaid for $100 a month.

She has not been put off by the resumption of fighting between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels at home.

“Here you are scared because you have no family. There at least you have the people around you,” she said, waiting for UN buses to the border with hundreds of other Sri Lankans at her country’s embassy in Beirut.

The United Nations’ International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is evacuating citizens of countries whose governments do not have the resources to get them home.

It has evacuated 7,690 since the war between Israel and Hizbollah erupted on July 12, but is stepping up the pace as demand for a way out grows from Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Ethiopians and other migrant workers.

“In the last week there’s been an increase in the number of people seeking assistance,” IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said. “Initially we were taking out 400 or 500 a day, now we are looking at double that.” Eleven buses loaded with Sri Lankan women were parked outside the embassy, where hundreds more were camped with suitcases packed hoping to leave soon. The IOM takes evacuees by bus to Damascus and then puts them on chartered flights home.

“This country has too many problems. It’s the first and last time I come here,” said Ramia Latak, waiting to board a bus.

The IOM initially estimated that 10,000 people would need its help. “There are obviously more than that. The funding will run out by the end of the month,” Chauzy said.


Broken legs


At least 170,000 migrant workers are employed in Lebanon, the majority from Asia. “We need at least another $15 million to help another 10,000,” Chauzy said. “As long as bombing continues, people will want to leave.” A bomb hit the house where Kay Irangali had worked as a maid in the southern city of Sidon. “The home owner said: ‘You go to Sri Lanka, we’re going to America,'” she said.

The taxi which brought her to Beirut, usually a 30 minute drive, cost a month’s salary because of the danger and the difficulty of navigating roads pounded by Israeli air strikes.

Like other international organisations, the IOM has not been able to make regular trips south because of Israeli air strikes.

An Israeli strike on the main road north, the route used by the IOM, briefly interrupted but did not stop their trips.

If Israeli air raids have impeded the flow of evacuees, so too have Lebanese employers who have locked their maids indoors.

Sri Lankan Ambassdor Amanul Farouque said at least three had arrived at his embassy with broken legs having tried to climb from balconies. “Sometimes the employers locked them up. They tried to escape using sheets from the window,” he said.

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