It was Betty’s 22nd birthday when she landed in Beirut from Ethiopia with the promise of a well-paid job, but her dream of a better life ended when she found herself at the mercy of her employers.
Betty – whose name was changed for security reasons – is one of more than 100,000 Ethiopian migrants in Lebanon working under the kafala sponsorship system, which binds them to one employer.
Ethiopians are the biggest group of migrant workers in Lebanon where there are also more than 47,000 Bangladeshis and nearly 19,000 Filipinos, according to 2016 government data.
For two years Betty said she worked like a slave, facing sexual, verbal and physical abuse, until she managed to escape.
But her new-found freedom was not all she had hoped and for the past five years she has found she is still trapped, working without legal work and residency permits.
“I live in fear at any minute I can get arrested and go to jail,” Betty, now 29, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Beirut.
The kafala system applies across the Arab world and is highly criticised by human rights group for exploiting workers and denying them the ability to travel or change jobs.
This criticism has led to some nations reforming the system, with countries like Bahrain and Jordan introducing flexible visas that stop workers being under one sponsor, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
In 2017 Qatar, host of the 2022 soccer World Cup, pledged a series of reforms including introducing a minimum wage and removed restrictions preventing migrant workers leaving the country without their employers’ permission.
But Lebanon is one of a list of Arab countries yet to introduce changes to the kafala system.
Georges Ayda, general director of the Ministry of Labor, said the kafala system was necessary to protect both the employer and the employee.
“When they work in houses there has to be somebody that is responsible for them. You are putting a stranger within a family,” said Ayda.
Despite the kafala system and Ethiopia banning its citizens from working in Lebanon since 2008, nearly 48,000 Ethiopians entered Lebanon between 2013 to 2016, government data shows.
But there are no official numbers of workers like Betty – so-called “irregular” workers – who do not have the legal paperwork to let them stay and work in the country.
Groups working with migrants see this as a widespread problem as it leaves people with no legal right to escape abusive bosses or poor working conditions.
“The sponsorship system allows this to be a systematic problem … you don’t have the right to be in the country, workers become trapped and they can’t leave without their passport,” said Zeina Mezher, migrant specialist for the ILO.