Ethiopian envoy: I have learned a ‘big lesson’

Asaminew Debelie Bonssa
Ethiopia’s consul general in Lebanon, Asaminew Debelie Bonssa
Asaminew Debelie Bonssa
Ethiopia’s consul general in Lebanon, Asaminew Debelie Bonssa

BEIRUT: By Annie Slemrod, The Daily Star – Ethiopia’s consul general in Lebanon, Asaminew Debelie Bonssa, said he has learned from the abuse and death of Alem Dechasa-Desisa, but he believes the problems of Ethiopian domestic workers in the country would best be solved by legalizing their labor.

Speaking to The Daily Star from the office from where he heard Dechasa-Desisa’s screams over a month ago, Bonssa maintained Friday that the type of violence she was subjected to is uncommon at the consulate.

In an incident outside the consulate that was caught on film and publicized by a local television station two weeks later, Dechasa-Desisa was dragged and forced into a car by a man, later identified as Ali Mahfouz. Bonssa said an intervention by consular officials was not included in the clip, and that she was immediately taken by police to Pyschiatrique de la Croix Hospital, known as Deir al-Salib. Doctors told him she hanged herself there on March 14, using strips of her bed sheets.

On Thursday, Mahfouz was charged with causing and contributing to her suicide. He is not currently in custody. Bonssa said he was pleased that Beirut’s Prosecutor-General Saeed Mirza was “keeping his word” following a meeting between the two.

Bonssa and his consulate have come under considerable criticism for failing to protect Dechasa-Desisa, and he told The Daily Star that he has learned “a big lesson.”

“As far as I know there are not many problems like this [at the consulate],” he said. “We used to solve problems amicably … and we are always dealing with problems between employees and employers.” When Mahfouz brought Dechasa-Desisa to the consulate complaining she was ill, Bonssa said he advised him to take her to the hospital, as is routine.

Mahfouz was not acting violently when inside the building, Bonssa said. Mahfouz and the man with him “could have come and talked to us, instead they used force and finally beat her. This was unacceptable … had we known I could have kept her [at the consulate].

“We used to trust every Lebanese, and we still trust [them], but [now] we have to follow up to the last,” he said, continuing that if an Ethiopian woman is in trouble, “wherever she is … we have to follow every step … When somebody gets sick, it is the responsibility of the employer to take them to the hospital … my concern now is, ‘has he taken her to the hospital or not?’”

As for the hospital, which has declined to comment on Dechasa-Desisa, Bonssa said “we don’t have any problem” with their treatment.

Information about the 33-year-old mother of two has been sketchy, and Bonssa himself does not have a picture of her. He said when he visited her in the hospital, she told him her husband had married another woman before she traveled to Lebanon. It is not clear if they officially divorced.

Dechasa-Desisa was not in his sights before the incident, Bonssa said, adding that this was not uncommon.

Ethiopia banned domestic workers from traveling to Lebanon some three years ago, “because before that there were a lot of deaths.” But women make their way here through various routes. Bonssa recalled Dechasa-Desisa telling him that she had paid to be smuggled into Lebanon, and was concerned about the money she had borrowed for this purpose.

He estimated that there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Ethiopians living in Lebanon, 43,000 legally. Many of these workers, mostly women, only make it to the consulate when they have problems. “In one day, not only one girl, but two or three are dropped here,” Bonssa said.

Bonssa acknowledged the flaws in the much-criticized sponsorship system for migrant workers, in which visas are tied to specific employers. “There are a lot of concerns,” he said. “Beatings, unpaid salaries … two months ago we had a girl who came to renew her passport. She said she had not received her salary … for two years.”

But he insisted the best way to minimize the woes of Ethiopian workers here is legalization. The biggest problem “is those who have no legal documents,” and he said that the countries have been discussing a bilateral agreement on labor for at least two years.