Nations scrambling to evacuate citizens

For poor countries, helping stranded workers return home from Lebanon has been struggle

July 27, 2006|By J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | J. MICHAEL KENNEDY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The Ethiopian Consulate was filled this week with young women, almost all of them maids and nannies trying to get back home.

And at the Iraqi Embassy, yet another bus pulled up with poor laborers seeking passage back to Baghdad, hoping to return home even though it means returning to another war zone.

Throughout the Lebanese capital, embassies and consulates are attempting to extricate fellow citizens from the fighting that began July 12.

For Western nations such as the United States, the effort has involved the costly use of ships or helicopters. For poor countries, the job has been a struggle, as their officials negotiate the intricacies of Lebanese law while finding a way to finance transportation, food and lodging for the thousands seeking to go home.

It can also involve making arrangements for people with little money and a lack of knowledge about what is needed to leave the country.

Many of the Ethiopian evacuees have had to make their way from south Lebanon, where the fighting is the heaviest. Others in Beirut simply want to leave because of fears the Israelis will intensify their shelling of the city. The exodus makes for a major headache for the tiny consulate staff, which in normal times does little more than renew passports.

"Many of them are illiterate," said Adem Nurhussen, the acting Ethiopian consul general. "Some don't even know what a passport is and most have run away from their sponsor, so they are illegal. And some sponsors want $2,000 or $3,000 just to give them their papers back."

Often, said Nurhussen, working here is a form of indentured servitude where it is almost impossible to quit, much less leave.

"In the Middle East, that is a very big problem," he said. "They often have their passports taken away from them immediately at the airport. Sometimes there is harassment and beatings. If they run away, the sponsors report them to the police. And sometimes the sponsors are so angry they just say the papers are lost."

Bethlehem Mulu, a consulate employee who has been trying to help the stranded workers, said there also are stories of employers who have fled to safety, leaving their maids behind to fend for themselves. One woman had her clothes and other belongings dumped at the front door by her employers, who then took off.

Mulu said most are now overjoyed that help in financing the trip home has arrived. Among others, that aid comes from the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization that assists Third World countries when their citizens are stranded in a disaster.

Vincent Houver, who is overseeing the Lebanese operation, said his organization has issued an appeal from its headquarters in Geneva for $12 million to help provide assistance. He said the group had been approached for help by a number of countries, including Ghana, Iraq and Vietnam.

"We got numerous requests from countries who didn't have the ability to evacuate," he said. "Some people just got dropped off in front of their embassy."

Houver said the logistics for such an operation can be a nightmare. In Lebanon, for instance, chartering a bus to the Syrian border costs about $3,000. Then there is the fare for the flight home. The border itself is difficult to negotiate, especially for people who have few, if any, travel documents.

In addition, those seeking to leave face major economic decisions that also affect relatives. Expatriate workers often send much of their salary home, Houver said.

"It's not a matter of leaving and coming back in two weeks. They know it's a one-way ticket," he said. "An entire family might depend on money that's coming from here. It could be a bit of an embarrassment as well. For them to decide to go home is not a lighthearted choice."

As a result, Houver said, "People are changing their minds on a daily basis. ... It depends on the bombing."

On Tuesday, various diplomatic missions were crowded while others were practically empty. At the Ghanaian Consulate, one man sat in the waiting room.

At the Iraqi Embassy, the consul, Al Manhal Al Safi, was busy directing a crowd, most of them men, onto the 15th bus to leave over two days. He said many would be going to Baghdad, but others would travel only as far as Damascus, the Syrian capital.

In all, he said, about 650 Iraqis have been evacuated from Beirut, some tourists but many more workers.

Many of those workers were in Lebanon illegally and saw the evacuation as a kind of holiday.

"It's a free ride, a free meal, free accommodations and free papers," the consul said.

J. Michael Kennedy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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