Geopolitics

When Diplomatic Immunity Becomes A License To Treat Domestic Staff Like Dogs

She worked late hours for meager pay, and suffered constant abuse. But in the end, the case of the Berlin-based Indonesian housekeeper went nowhere – thanks to her alleged tormentor’s diplomatic status. Is it time to change the longstanding practice of di

The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Berlin, Germany (sporst)
The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Berlin, Germany (sporst)
Constanze von Bullion

BERLIN -- The life of a domestic slave takes place at floor level. That's the way it was described by the Indonesian woman who lived it. Sleeping on the floor, summer and winter, with only a sheet to use as mattress or to keep her warm. Scrubbing the floor. Kneeling on the floor to tie the shoelaces of her employer's children.

The children were already in their early teens – old enough to tie their own shoelaces, to get dressed on their own. But human beings are obsessed with comfort, and they get annoyed if they're not getting something they take for granted. And when the children of a slaveholder get whiny, it's dangerous for the slave. She may face not only a beating but have a bottle thrown at her – and then it's back down on the floor, picking up the shattered glass.

The story of Dewi Ratnasari (not her real name) reads like something out of another day and age. Not so. It played out in 21st century Berlin, and is one of many cases where diplomats enjoying immunity treat their house helpers like cleaning rags, pay them badly or not at all, mistreat them, sometimes even rape them, without having to own responsibility for their actions.

Regional Labor Court Berlin, Room 337, faux wood tables and linoleum floor: this is no place for the sentimental. "The plaintiff's appeal is turned down by the labor court," says the judge. And costs are at the expense of the plaintiff, which is the German Institute for Human Rights representing Ratnasari on a "trial" basis. But the intention, if necessary, is to take the matter to Germany's highest court for criminal and private law, the German Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe.

The core issue is this: can a diplomat be prosecuted for human rights abuse? The specific instance concerns Ratnasari, who worked for 19 months in the home of a Saudi-Arabian diplomat stationed in Berlin. The family paid her only once –150 euros during Ramadan. Not only did she have to work late into the night, but she never got a vacation. Ratnasari also claims the family called her "Nila" (the Arabic word for shit), and that even the children were allowed to hit her.

The Saudi diplomat denied the charges, saying in reply to inquiries by the German Foreign Office that he paid and treated the woman well. The man also showed receipts he says were signed by the former employee. The diplomat did, however, declare himself willing to come up with 6,000 euros in back pay. Asked for confirmation, the man's attorney stated that his client had already left Germany before the case could be cleared up.

Hitting a legal dead end

This week, Berlin's Regional Labor Court -- after their first judgment was appealed – stated that Ratnasari's claims were legitimate, but that nothing could be done about them. The court could not, it said, admit a criminal complaint against a member of the diplomatic corps. For hundreds of years, diplomats have enjoyed immunity, and that immunity was "indisputable" according to the judge – necessary for countries to conduct negotiations with each other also in times of war. Because this was in the public interest, an alleged case involving an individual could not be taken up.

Nivedita Prasad knows plenty about when happens when an "alleged case involving an individual" goes unproven and unpunished. The sociologist heads the Ban Ying center in Berlin that provides counseling for victims of forced prostitution and human trafficking. She is experienced enough to be able to distinguish between some trumped up tale and a credible one.

Dewi Ratnasari's story belongs in the latter category. Last November, she showed up at the center, a wraith of a woman weighing only around 40 kilos (88 lbs). Prasad also noticed her clothes. They were much too light for the time of year, and there was nothing in Ratnasari's suitcase to indicate that she'd been a properly paid domestic worker.

"It was the flimsiest of summer clothing, all of it from Asia: nothing had been bought in Europe," Prasad said. The crying woman said she didn't want any money, didn't want to file a complaint, she just wanted to get away. "Her biggest fear was being sent back to her employer."

Prasad is familiar with such cases, and says in the least serious ones the issue is money. One Turkish diplomat, for example, e-mailed a domestic worker in his employ that henceforth he would only be paying 350 euros a month. In Germany, the minimum monthly salary for a domestic worker is 750 euros.

More serious cases include that of a domestic worker for the Embassy of Bangladesh who filed a complaint because he'd been hit over the head with a chair. The police refused to investigate. A Filipina was allegedly raped repeatedly over a period of several months, and when her employer noticed she was pregnant he turned her out on the street. A paternity suit went nowhere.

And it is not only men who are charged with maltreatment. Another Filipina employee was asked by her employer, a female diplomat, to accompany her on a visit home. When they arrived, says Prasad, the employee's passport was taken away from her, and her employer told her that henceforth she would be looking after her elderly parents for 100 euros a month.

In another case, a female diplomat is alleged to have hit her own daughter with cabling. According to a medical report, the abuse left the girl permanently scarred. "The girl went to German youth welfare authorities, but because of the immunity issue they were afraid to take any action."

Of course, relatively few diplomats engage in such reprehensible activity, said Prasad, but "they all know that no matter what happens, nothing will happen to them."

Many diplomats are guilty of traffic violations. Some of them have been chased by police as they drove drunkenly through traffic but -- despite accidents and injuries caused -- suffered no consequences. In 2010, 15,000 parking tickets and complaints were issued against diplomats, and the trend is rising. The state of Berlin has seen not a single penny of the 157,000 euros in fines those tickets represent.

"It's a structural problem," says Petra Follmar-Otto of the German Institute of Human Rights, an organization that challenges constitutional law in defending the rights of victims.

For Dewi Ratnasari, the institute is financing legal costs and asking for 70,000 euros as compensation in unpaid salary and damages for pain and suffering.

The former domestic worker says she doesn't really care. She's since moved back to her village in Indonesia, and would rather not talk about anything concerning Germany.

Read the original story in German

Photo - sporst

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ