BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines said it was investigating a purported racist incident that took place over the weekend at Beirut Airport, adding that the company does not tolerate such behavior.
Lebanese Abed Shaheen was at Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport Saturday evening awaiting an Air Arabia flight to Sharjah when he heard an MEA Ground Services staff member single out a group of Filipino passengers on the loudspeaker, instructing them to be quiet.
In a message broadcast to the whole airport, she said: “Filipino people stop talking,” all the while giggling with her male colleague.
Speaking to The Daily Star Monday, Shaheen, who works in the United Arab Emirates, said that at first he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Too embarrassed to even look at the Filipino passengers at which the directive was addressed, Shaheen realized he could not stay silent and spoke to the MEA staff member and her colleague directly.
In his blog post, Shaheen recalls, “This unfortunately sounded like a joke to them and they went on to say “we do whatever we want and we don’t care about what you are saying,” then “management doesn’t even want this kind of people on the flight” and “even if you complain this will be thrown away and we dare you to do anything about it.”
The male colleague then threatened to annul Shaheen’s own flight ticket.
He later blogged about the experience, as well as formally complaining to MEA, Air Arabia and Sky Team, under which MEA flies, and the incident was soon spread widely by Lebanese bloggers and on Twitter, leading to the launch of an online petition demanding an apology from MEA.
The company issued a statement via its official Facebook page Monday afternoon, stating that “MEA’s policy is not to tolerate discriminatory or racist behavior in any form from our employees, and that appropriate measures will be taken once the facts of the incident are brought to light,” and that a full investigation is under way.
While happy the incident is being taken seriously, Shaheen says the company needs to apologize directly to those Filipinos who were singled out, and “on behalf of the Lebanese people. I’m not going to accept this in my airport.”
Crucially, he adds, MEA must dismiss the two employees involved in the alleged incident.
“This is a small example, but it adds up, and MEA has to make a stand. They have to abide by international human rights laws,” Shaheen, who works in information technology, says.
“It would make an example to other companies and even to individuals within their own homes, that being abusive is not to be tolerated.”
Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch hopes that the incident will lead to an overhaul of MEA policy, after similar situations in the past.
In previous incidents, Houry says, “Lebanese passengers had asked not to sit next to migrant workers and MEA has indulged them. But this time it’s more direct.”
“State-owned companies have a responsibility to uphold the highest standards, and what’s more important than arbitrary dismissals is policy. They need to treat all passengers equally. They look at these passengers as second or third class citizens.”
It is now imperative that MEA produce internal policy or staff training which will prevent the recurrence of such an incident, Houry adds, but he believes the whole system at the airport needs to be broken down.
“If MEA staff members see General Security staff treating migrant domestic workers as second class citizens,” Houry says, this mentality will spread.
“They all have to know that there is no space for discrimination anymore.”