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Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 17:46 UK

'Racism' claims at Lebanon beach clubs

Tourists relaxing at one of Beirut's beach clubs.
Many tourists are unaware of the beach clubs' entry policies

By Andrew North
BBC News, Beirut

Summer is at its peak in Lebanon. Each weekend its famous beach clubs are heaving with people seeking some relief from the oppressive heat.

Thanks to the relative peace in the country, many clubs are now having their best season in years - with thousands of tourists joining the beachside throng.

However, it seems not everyone is welcome at the clubs.

The Lebanese office of campaign group Human Rights Watch says a majority of beach clubs it surveyed are preventing many migrant workers from Asia and Africa from using their facilities.

[The ban is] a clear manifestation of the racism that exists in large parts of Lebanese society
Nadim Houry
Human Rights Watch

The clubs are not being quite as specific as that.

It is alleged the bans are on household maids and domestic servants, widely employed by Lebanese families and the many Gulf Arabs among the tourists.

As the vast majority of the maids are women from places like the Philippines, Nepal, Ethiopia and Kenya, it seems no-one can be in any doubt as to who these restrictions are aimed at.

Restrictions enforced

"It's a clear manifestation of the racism that exists in large parts of Lebanese society," says Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch, whose survey found that 17 out of 27 beach clubs enforce some kind of restriction on migrants.

One of Beirut's best known and oldest beach establishments, The Sporting Club, is among those enforcing such restrictions.

The manager, Marwan Abu Nassar, initially justified the ban on grounds that allowing in maids would attract too many children to the club.

When it was pointed out that there is a children's pool inside the complex - and there are usually many families with youngsters there - Mr Abu Nassar eventually conceded he was operating a policy of discrimination.

"You can call it that, if you want, from a foreigner's point of view," he said.

Marwan Abu Nassar protested that if he started allowing in domestic maids, "we would get complaints, I would lose customers and it would affect my business".

By contrast, other foreigners are welcomed - those from wealthier Western countries, for example. The club is popular with this group of expats though few are seemingly aware of the entry policies.

Tourist takes in the sun at one of Beirut's beach club.
Lebanon has seen a resurgence of foreign tourists returning to its shores

As a private club, Mr Abu Nassar said, it is up to the management to decide on the rules.

The Sporting Club - and others with similar policies - are doing nothing illegal, as Lebanon has no law against discrimination.

In a country still rebuilding from past conflicts and fearing the possibility of more in the future, this may not seem like a priority issue.

Yet critics say it is symptomatic of a widespread culture of discrimination and of the abuse many of these migrants working in Lebanon suffer.

It is thought that there are currently 200,000 domestic maids in Lebanon, the vast majority of them women from Asia and East Africa.

Tales of mistreatment

Reports of mistreatment are commonplace.

The story of one maid the BBC spoke to is typical. Carrie - not her real name - arrived in Lebanon three years ago at the age of 20, after being recruited in her native Philippines.

My passport was taken from me straight away and I had to work 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They [her employers] would only let me out of the house for three hours a week at most.
Carrie
migrant worker

Carrie was taken on by another household but claims they beat her and after two months she ran away. She is now effectively stuck in Lebanon because that employer still has her passport.

Every year there are reports of domestic maids in Lebanon committing suicide.

The country's labour ministry says a new law granting migrant workers better rights is awaiting approval, once a new government is formed.

In a statement it condemned the practice of banning maids from beach clubs as, "an act of discrimination and racism".

The new law will be a "good sign", says MP Ghassan Mkheiber, from the Lebanese parliament's human rights committee.

He adds that there is "a lot of racism in the way the Lebanese deal with people of different nationalities."

Attitudes, he says, need to change.



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