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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 19:08 GMT 20:08 UK
Sri Lankan maids stranded by war
By Samanthi Dissanayake
BBC News website

When the bombs started pounding Lebanon, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan migrant workers were left to fend for themselves.

In a small town in southern Lebanon, a group of maids have been trapped by the destruction of the local infrastructure and employers who they say refuse to let them leave.

Truck carrying evacuees to safety
People have been fleeing the bombardment in droves
Padma, 22, described her terror to the BBC News website. "We tried to go away, but the employers won't let us. We have been so very scared," she said.

"They won't give us our passports. They want me to continue working here and they won't pay me the rest of my salary if I go now. I have been working for one-and-a-half years but I have only got three months' pay."

The women have been desperate to get to the Sri Lankan embassy in Beirut and return home.

Someone was killed in a neighbourhood close by - I just want to go home, I want to see Sri Lanka
Menika
Fellow domestic helper Menika, 21, said that her employers were withholding her passport because they didn't want her to make her own way to Beirut, fearing for her safety.

"Missy is worried. She says that if the embassy sends a car for us and takes us to Beirut, we can leave. But who is going to come here? The roads are so damaged. There is hardly any way in or out.

"And every night we hear the big sound of the bombs. Someone was killed in a neighbourhood close by. I just want to go home. I want to see Sri Lanka."

But with no outside help forthcoming, some of the maids say they are planning to run away and brave their luck on the perilous road to Beirut.

"We are going to leave in secret. I don't know how yet. I think there could be people who will go for money. We have heard there is a truck which will go," said Padma.

Terrible plight

Officials at the Sri Lankan embassy have urged the maids to get to Beirut, even if it means leaving their passports, belongings and money behind.

Man inspected trucks targeted by Israeli bombardment
Trucks have been targeted by Israel's warplanes
But they are telling evacuees from the south to avoid travelling on trucks - even if it means walking for a day - because the Israeli aerial bombardment has particularly targeted trucks.

Sri Lanka's ambassador to Lebanon, Amanul Farooq, said: "Unfortunately, this story is not uncommon. Many employers are very good and have brought their charges to safety.

"But some refuse to give people their passports and pay their salaries. We have had domestic helpers run away and come to us leaving all their documentation behind. Others are in a terrible plight because their employers have left them at home and escaped."

The Sri Lankan embassy has already evacuated 300 nationals and is processing about 1,000 more. But Mr Farooq says it is proving very difficult to get access to the tens of thousands across the country.

There are estimated to be 80,000 Sri Lankan nationals in Lebanon, the vast majority of these employed as domestic helpers typically earning $100 a month.

Refuge

A refuge for migrant workers run by the Christian charity Caritas is the staging post for some of the domestic helpers waiting to leave.

FOREIGNERS IN LEBANON
Sri Lanka: 80,000
Canada: 40,000
Philippines: 30,000
Australia: 25,000
US: 25,000
UK: 22,000 (inc. 10,000 with dual nationality)
France: 20,000
The refuge has mainly housed prisoners released by the Lebanese government, most of them detained for violating immigration laws.

But not everyone wants to leave.

Hemalatha, 30, a domestic helper left at the refuge by her employers had only bitterness. "I have been dumped here. My husband is blind and I have to support my children. There is no work for me back home," she said.

Sister Leela, a Sri Lankan nun who works at the shelter, said that some of the women being bussed to the refuge from prison escaped from the vehicle and disappeared into the ruins of Beirut - choosing the uncertainty of war over a passage home.

Meanwhile, the young group of maids from southern Lebanon will attempt to make their own way to the embassy over the next few days with little money and no passport - dependent only on luck.





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