July 25, 2006

Long wait for thousands still stranded in Lebanon

By David Clarke

BEIRUT (Reuters) - "One at a time, one at a time," screamed
the guards at Sri Lanka's embassy in Beirut, shoving back
crowds of people waving passports, desperate to get inside.

There are some 80,000 Sri Lankans working in Lebanon and
thousands have descended on the small embassy a 20 minute drive
from downtown Beirut, seeking help to flee Israel's bombs.

The mass evacuation of Western nationals is drawing to a
close but tens of thousands of poor migrant workers are trapped
in Lebanon. Some are frightened, some are simply homeless,
having been deserted by their fleeing bosses.

The Sri Lankan community is the biggest and 98 percent work
as maids for about $100 a month. There are some 30,000-40,000
Filipinos, up to 20,000 Ethiopians and 10,000 Bangladeshis.

Their embassies have limited resources and are being helped
by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and aid
group Karitas. They are aiming to put the evacuees on buses to
Syria, and then onto planes home.

"I'm leaving because I'm too afraid and a I have a small,
three-year-old son in Sri Lanka," said Ganegamage Malkanthi,
24, standing next to her Lebanese employer who was helping get
her application to leave processed.

Inside the embassy the corridors are clogged and scores of
Sri Lankans crowd the few rooms, hunkered down, leaning on
suitcases, sleeping sprawled on the floor in the sticky heat.

Amanul Farouque, Sri Lanka's ambassador to Lebanon, Syria
and Iraq, is coordinating the evacuation, working round the
clock with his staff of eight, calmly fielding call after call
on his mobile and pleading his case to those who can help.


He says 500 Sri Lankans slept at the embassy on Monday
night and another 300 were housed in Karitas shelters in
Beirut. Farouque is just about managing to keep them fed but
says the embassy keeps running out of water.

"People are pouring into the embassy in their hundreds,
their thousands ... and we have limited resources," he said.
"We hope that in the next three, four, five days the situation
will even itself out."

Vincent Houver, IOM's head of operations for Beirut
emergency activities, said he hoped to move 900 Sri Lankans out
through Syria by Saturday. About 2,000 are registered to leave
and many more queued on Tuesday to add their names to the

Houver said many of the 3,000 Filipinos waiting to go were
simply left on the street when their employers packed up and
fled, so getting them home was a priority.

"The Westerners left so people are asking why can't we
leave? Then some in a community get out so others decide to
go," he said. "It's a snowball effect, a self-fulfilling

Many Lebanese families depend on their Sri Lankan and
Filipino staff to run their homes and look after their

Farouque worries some Sri Lankans are being prevented from
leaving by employers keeping their passports. But he said the
authorities were understanding, and if people turned up without
their documents there was still a chance they could leave.

Nassif Freen, 36, a computer engineer in Beirut, was one of
many Lebanese doing their utmost to help scared staff get out.

But one man at the embassy clearly had a different motive.

"Our girl left the house. So I came to the embassy to find
her. I saw her, 10 metres away, but she ran away," said a
Lebanese businessman who just called himself Said.

"I have her passport and her papers so I've come to see if
she wants to leave -- or not. Why does she want to leave? She's
happy," he said, as he pestered embassy officials, calling them
"servants" under his breath.

Finally, one official reassured Said his maid needed her
passport to leave Lebanon. So he headed home -- relieved.