Lebanon knows the drill: war and economic crisis lead many to emigrate. In recent years Lebanon has been engulfed in an economic turmoil. In the last 18 months this has become increasingly acute following the COVID-19 pandemic which has unhinged its crumbling economy making it even more unstable. The August 2020 explosion at its port drew global attention to its faltering infrastructure which got exasperated by the SAR-COV 2 outbreak which has deepened the economic crisis into chaos.
With 50% of the population living below the poverty line, millions are at risk of losing access to clean water. The Lebanese are describing the crisis as the “worst economic disasters” since the mid-19th century.”
“A loss of access to the public water supply could force households to make extremely difficult decisions regarding their basic water, sanitation and hygiene needs,” said Yukie Mokuo, UNICEF’s representative in Lebanon.
While the Lebanese are ‘battle-hardened’ in economic terms, their economic resilience faces an uphill battle following acute shortages of basic civil amenities such as water, fuel, electricity and a pervasive corruption. These multiple crises are crippling Lebanese businesses as a result the many things that we take for granted in our society are very difficult to find in Lebanon. Everything is in shortage in the country; this pervasive scarcity is pervasive across industries and sectors. As a result, most people find it hard to stock their refrigerator; for a large section of the people taking a daily bath is close to impossible due to the acute shortage of water. Many Lebanese citizens opine that Lebanon is unliveable.
According to a Simon Massih, a Lebanese citizen who has recently immigrated to the United States “While corruption has always existed in Lebanon, its effects have never been on this large of a scale. Now, the basic needs that you need for survival — they’re just not there.”
Without money being invested into local industries, Lebanon’s economic future appears to be grim.
Mismanaged economy fueling emigration crisis
Overlapping crises have given rise to an emigration crisis, with a growing number of the population preferring to live in neighboring countries rather than let their raise their children in a dysfunctional failing economy.
Between July and September 14, a large number of Lebanese approached smugglers to take them into neighboring Cyprus, according to statistics provided by the UNHCR. During this period 21 boats left Lebanon for Cyprus.
So far this year, 52,000 asylum seekers and emigrants have crossed the Mediterranean for Cyprus. Fishermen at the Tripoli harbor have seen groups of emigrants leaving on fishing vessels on the pretense of going for a swimming outing. They typically wait on an island from where they are picked up by smugglers and are taken presumably to Cyprus.
Incidentally, the large majority of potential emigrants trying to reach Cyprus, in the hope of settling in other countries in Europe, such as France and Germany, are from Syrian refugees, where the economic hardship was precarious long before Lebanon’s economy descended into a chaotic financial and political meltdown.
Although Syrian refugees are a large part of the group of potential emigrants risking their lives to reach European shores in the hope of a better life, Lebanese residents of Tripoli are now increasingly considering to attempt emigrating to Europe via Cyprus using the sea route.
“How many people are thinking about it? All of us, without exception,” said Mohammed al-Jindi, a 32-year-old father of two who manages a mobile phone shop in Tripoli, in reference to the people he knows in the city.
“In desperate situations, whether in search of safety, protection, or basic survival, people will move, whatever the danger,” said Mireille Girard, UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon. “Addressing the reasons of these desperate journeys and the swift collective rescue of people distressed at sea are key.”
Case in point: for 35-year-old Pierre Sarkis, a Lebanese, emigrating to Cyprus was the only choice. Life was especially hell in Lebanon after mid-September when the economic crisis took a turn for the worse.
“I don’t look back. I know I’ve exhausted all my options in Lebanon,” said Sarkis.
According to research consultancy firm Information International, Sarkis is among the 77,000 Lebanese who have emigrated in the last 12-months.
“Some 12,000 of them have gone to Cyprus, with 70 percent being between the ages of 25 and 40”, said Mohammad Chamseddine, Information International’s policy and research specialist.
A recent poll by the agency shows, 63% of Lebanese would prefer emigrating in the face of worsening
economic conditions; they prefer the risks of a perilous sea journey than to reside in Lebanon. Many have opted to take such dangerous trips in the hope of settling down in European countries.
A Lebanese who resides in a refugee reception center in Cyprus, speaking on the condition of anonymity said, he and his family took the risk since they could no longer afford to pay for basic amenities for his children in Lebanon, where their prices have skyrocketed.
“There’s no job market in Lebanon,” said Chamseddine. “So when students graduate from university, they either have the option of emigrating or staying and being unemployed.”
Sarkis, who had a corporate job back at Lebanon, was the last among his group of friends to emigrate. He even stuck around after the devastating blast at Beirut’s port, which killed more than 200 people, wounded 6,500 others and wrecked several neighborhoods in Beirut. The blast also shook his home.
The electricity and fuel crisis was the last straw.
“When I couldn’t even do a job interview because of all the power cuts or go to a meeting because of the petrol crisis, I knew that this door has been slammed shut,” said Sarkis. “And when we didn’t have electricity for a full 24 hours, and I had to throw away everything that thawed in my freezer, I told myself ‘that’s it’.”
He went on to say, “I would pray that when I get the call for the job interview, my phone would have enough battery to get through the meeting”.
Sarkis had to sell his car and other belongings to emigrate to Cyprus, where a Greek passport from one of his grandparents allowed him to move there with relative ease. “If you live in Lebanon now, you’ll go crazy.”
Passport renewal requests shoot up
According to data from Beirut-based Information International, in the last 10 months, the number of people wanting to emigrate have risen from 17,720 in 2020 to 65,000 so far this year, said Mohammed Sham al-Din researcher at Information International. He expects this number to at least double next year following a 150% rise in passport renewal requests, underscoring the Lebanese wish to flee the country.
The heightened demand in passports and their renewals have prompted the Lebanese General Security to issue regulatory decision, about a month ago, prioritizing issuing of new passports, while postponing non-urgent renewal requests.
As a result, in order to obtain a new passport or renew an existing one, the Lebanese will now have to prove a valid entry visa or residency in the foreign country they wish to travel to, along with a plane ticket and hotel reservations.
“The General Security is trying to limit the number of passport renewals so that each public security center in Lebanon issues a maximum of 40 passports [a day] because there are 150,000 pending requests and it takes a long time and requires a big budget to print new passports. This crisis will continue until March 2022,” said Sham al-Din, referring to the scheduled date for the parliamentary elections.
According to Crisis Observatory at the American University of Beirut, the recent emigration of Lebanese ranks as the third largest emigration wave in Lebanon’s history. The emigrants are no longer just targeted neighboring countries in Europe such as France, Germany, but also countries the Lebanese once migrated to including Turkey, Australia and the United States.
“In 2021, at least 5,000 Lebanese emigrated to Turkey, 70% of whom are between 20 and 40 years old. A lot of Lebanese also chose Georgia and Armenia as their emigration destinations.”
“The majority of [these] are a gateway to Western Europe,” explained Shams al-Din.
According to Lyne Jida, who is in charge of the Lebanese community at Tulyp, a social NGO concerned with the affairs of the Lebanese in Turkey, “Most Lebanese choose Turkey as their country of residence to escape living in Lebanon since they do not need entry visas and they can obtain an annual residency known as the tourist residency for $130 to $160. In addition, tickets to Turkey are cheaper than other destinations.”
She went on to add, “There are currently about 10,000 Lebanese in Turkey. We had 5,500 Lebanese in 2020, 500 of whom have since left Turkey; some returned to Lebanon while others left for other countries. The majority of Lebanese in Turkey reside in Istanbul, Antalya, Mersin, Ankara, Adana, Izmir and Isparta. Over the last couple of months, more families have settled here.”
“Most Lebanese here are Muslims, Sunnis in particular. They come mainly from northern Lebanon, Beirut and other regions. Youth between 18 to 23 years old are students who come to study at private universities since foreigners do not have the right to study at public universities.”
“The Lebanese find jobs in private companies, restaurants and recreational enterprises, as they hold a tourist residency, but that is illegal. Some major companies are forced to get them work permits. Others prefer to open small businesses, such as bakeries, which have a high turnout. Those with larger capital mainly invest in the tourism sector, such as restaurants, hotels, and in import and export,” said Jida. For many Lebanese emigration is the only option to survive.
Case in point: Mohammed Al-Jindi, a Lebanese, plans on taking the sea route for himself and his family. But so far he has been unable to scrape together the $1,000 demanded by smugglers, who insist on cash payment in the scarce US dollars, and not Lebanese lira.
“I don’t want to let my children live the same experiences… the sound of explosions, the sound of shooting,” said al-Jindi. After the Beirut port explosion, “1,000 percent, now I have a greater desire to leave.”
However shelling out the $1,000 fee demanded by smugglers is beyond the reach of many Lebanese. As a result, many Lebanese, frustrated with a lack of opportunities in the country, are contemplating the Mediterranean journey. But COVID-19 related travel restrictions have resulted in the general tightening of borders, thus for many, despite the risks to their lives, many Lebanese are turning to the sea to escape living in Lebanon.
About a month ago, following a sharp increase in the demand for passports, the Lebanese General Security issued a regulatory order prioritizing the issuing of new passports, over non-urgent renewal requests.
Now, in order to obtain a new passport or renew an existing one, citizens need to present valid proof of a valid entry visa or residency in the foreign country they wish to travel to, as well as a plane ticket and hotel reservations.
“The General Security is trying to limit the number of passport renewals so that each public security center in Lebanon issues a maximum of 40 passports [a day] because there are 150,000 pending requests and it takes a long time and requires a big budget to print new passports. This crisis will continue until March 2022,” Sham al-Din noted, referring to the scheduled date for the parliamentary elections.
Change of Demography
The number of Lebanese Christians emigrating have shot up in recent months, leading to a potential change of demography and a redrawing of the sectarian map in Lebanon.
Father Tony Khadra, head of the Labora Foundation that aims to provide job opportunities for young people, especially Christians, told Al-Monitor, “The number of Lebanese emigrants has witnessed an upward trend for two years now. The percentage of Christian emigrants has exceeded 60% in the last two years.”
“I graduated in 2019 as a mathematics teacher. I spent a year searching for a job, to no avail. I decided to leave and I got a job at a school in Iraq,” said Jad Hawat, a young Lebanese Christian who emigrated to Iraq a year ago and who continues to live there.
“Despite all of Iraq’s security and political crises, the crisis in Lebanon is much worse. I came here to build a future for myself, hoping that the crisis back home will end one day. I think about returning to Lebanon at the earliest in five years. This is because I live in a neighboring Arab country, but I doubt those who left for Europe and the United States will ever come back. They will live in stability and economic growth.”
“Emigration has become our only ambition, especially after Hezbollah took control of everything in Lebanon. I love Lebanon a lot, but we can’t live here. We can’t get basic services. This is very frustrating,” said Sarah Haber, a 24-year old Lebanese.
“Of my 20 male and female friends from my village Bhamdoun in Aley district, 13 have emigrated. Some to France, others to Germany and Bulgaria. They are very happy and they earn around 1,200 euros [$1,350] per month.”
According to Georges, a social activist, who preferred not to reveal his last name, “It is true that Lebanese people of all sects are emigrating, but there is a fear that Christians will not return after the economic situation improves because they are more likely to settle in the West. This was the case for the Christians who emigrated during the civil war in the 1980s.”
Underscoring the general feeling among Christians in Lebanon that they lost the battle during the civil war, and have become a minority now, making up nearly 50% of Lebanon’s population, Georges said, “This is why they refuse to conduct a new census. Christians feel they lost power after the rise of Hezbollah as a political force, and this explains their growing desire to emigrate. The explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020 has upped the number of Christian emigrants.”
Following a meeting of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati with the Pope at the Vatican on November 25, Pope Francis said, “I assure you of my prayers, my closeness and promise to work diplomatically with countries so that they unite with Lebanon to help it rise again.”
“It is certain that Pope Francis cares about Lebanon for being a message of diversity and richness to the Middle East. He is keen on keeping Christians in Lebanon in order to preserve this diversity. But all initiatives must have concrete results on the ground. Lebanon today is threatened by a demographic
sectarian change,” said Khadra.
Glimmer of Hope
Earlier this year, Annie Aznavourian, a Lebanese Armenian arrived in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, after leaving her job as a bank manager in Beirut.
“I arrived here about a year ago with my two sons after I lost hope in Lebanon. After 18 years of work, my end-of-service compensation no longer had any value since the Lebanese currency dramatically depreciated.”
She is currently trying to kickstart her own small business in Armenia.
“Many Lebanese came here this year; there are at least 7,000 Lebanese residing in Armenia. Most come here to open small or large businesses. The only job opportunities are in customer service centers, especially night shifts, for $350 [a month],” said Annie.
“With $10,000, one can start a small business, and the state provides help for obtaining licenses from official departments, all of which is done electronically” explained Annie.
She goes on to add, “Housing is expensive given the high demand, but the cost of food, services and medicine is very low. Many Lebanese investors, businessmen and factory owners opt for buying land, especially nut orchards alongside livestock and poultry farms.”
“It is very easy to obtain residency in Armenia. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Lebanese entered without a visa; today they can easily obtain it electronically. Those who have an Armenian mother obtain citizenship immediately; a man whose wife is Armenian pays $100 for the annual residency, while non-Armenian Lebanese pay $200,” said Annie regarding the residency permit in Armenia.
“Many Lebanese students are applying to universities in Armenia, specifically the American University, as the fees are much lower than in Lebanon. For example, the same major costs between 8,000 to $12,000 in Lebanon, while it costs no more than $3,000 here and university housing is included.”
“The Lebanese community in Georgia is the third-largest community after the Iraqi and Egyptian ones. The Lebanese presence began four years ago with the influx of students who came to study medicine and engineering since tuition fees are lower than in Lebanon. Studying medicine currently costs $6,000 annually here [Georgia]; much cheaper than in Lebanon,” said Hassan Khadra, an official from the Arab Community of Georgia.
He went on to add, “Before 2021, there were about 700 Lebanese here, most of whom are investors in the tourism sector in particular, and the rest are students. Most Lebanese in Georgia are Christians who would rather live here instead of in Turkey to have religious freedom”.
“Today, there are over 1,500 Lebanese in Georgia, some of whom have recently arrived from Malaysia and Turkey, preferring to live and invest here, as it is cheaper in terms of living and more stable. The Lebanese mainly reside in the capital, Tbilisi, especially students, and Batumi, which is preferred by investors since it is a tourist city.”
“The capital required to start a small business is $10,000. Five years ago, one could purchase an apartment with this amount, but after Arabs rushed to Georgia prices rose” explained Khadra. “Many Lebanese youth open barbershops, with a budget of around $15,000. Those with more capital resort to investing in Lebanese restaurants, which are very popular among tourists.”