Forgotten and Abandoned: The Plight of African Migrant Workers and Refugees

The Spanish Coastguard intercepts a traditional fishing boat carrying African migrants off the island of Tenerife in the Canaries (Source: UNHCR/ A. Rodriguez Flickr)

In the wake of the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests and the global pandemic, the plight of thousands of African migrants and refugees seems to be forgotten.

In places like Lebanon, where economic mismanagement, corruption and overspending has led to an economic crisis, African migrant workers are being abandoned in the most brutal manner as employers are unable to pay their wages due to the depreciation of the Lebanese pound. Ethiopian migrant workers, who make up the majority of domestic workers in Lebanon, are being left in the streets by their employers and forced to camp outside the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut with no money to return home. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), under the Kafala (sponsorship) system, “a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor (kafeel) for their contract period. The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment nor leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit written permission from the kafeel.” The sponsorship system, therefore, allows thousands of African domestic workers to be exploited and abused, with no one to turn to for help. Kenyan domestic workers in Lebanon have not only reported exploitation and abuse at the hands of employers, but also at the hands of Kenya’s Honorary Consul, Sayed Chalouhi, and his assistant Kassem Jaber, both Lebanese nationals who oversee the Kenyan consulate in Beirut. In July, these allegations prompted the Kenyan government to send officials to Beirut to investigate. Abusive employers and incompetent consulates are not the only things African migrant workers have to deal with — some are trafficked and sold to others. In April, a Nigerian domestic worker in Lebanon was put up for sale for $1,000 on Facebook, after a man posted her passport in a “Buy and Sell” group. Fortunately, she was able to return home safely with the help of Lebanese authorities but this highlights the many others who are likely being trafficked and don’t get saved. Many migrants leave their countries fleeing poverty, persecution and violence.

While some choose to try their luck as domestic workers through sponsorship, others make the dangerous journey alone, risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean. According to the Missing Migrants Project, an estimated 562 migrants have died in the Mediterranean, this year alone. In recent years, horrific stories of African migrants and refugees drowning while trying to reach Europe has sadly become a regular phenomenon. Thousands of African migrants have died or suffered abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers while trying to reach Europe. Others are currently stuck in war-torn Yemen and hellish detention centers in Saudi Arabia. Countries in the Middle East are not the only ones where African migrants face tremendous hurdles. In the past couple of years, migrants from Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Angola, and Congo trying to reach the U.S. have had to pass through the Darien Gap, a dangerous and lawless jungle separating Colombia from Central America. According to UNICEF, the journey is perilous for both migrants and their children, as they have to face grave risks such as “no access to safe water, as well as exposure to natural hazards, dangerous animals, robbery, abuse, and exploitation.”

How many more African migrants and refugees are going to face abuse or death before governments and international actors step in? This pressing question is on the minds of activists and human rights groups who have been sounding alarms about the atrocious conditions migrants and refugees endure, and those that die trying to reach a haven. African governments must step up and arrange repatriation programs to bring home migrant workers stuck in countries where they have been abandoned. Moreover, governments must strive to build strong institutions that can address the economic grievances of citizens and provide them with opportunities to support themselves and their families, to avoid forcing them to leave their countries in hopes of a better life. Countries like Lebanon who still use the Kafala system must follow in the footsteps of Qatar, which has abolished the sponsorship system and has adopted labor laws that protect the rights of migrant workers. The European Union and European governments must work hand in hand to find a solution for the thousands of refugees that are making their way to their shores. Simply abandoning them at sea or refusing the ships carrying them to dock won’t solve the problem. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, migrants and refugees will continue to risk their lives in search of better opportunities. It is therefore critical that governments and international organizations work hand in hand to come up with humane policies that ensure safety and protect the rights of migrants and refugees.

Nani Detti

Communications Intern,

Africa Program



Center for International Policy, Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement