‘Plotting our escape’: Lebanon braces for new emigration wave
Many Lebanese seek a way out as country sinks into instability and economic collapse – but it is not that easy.
Beirut, Lebanon – Shops shut. Traffic lights off. Breadlines. Fuel lines. Little state-provided electricity.
Little state-provided anything.
Lebanon’s population is facing a deepening financial crisis that has made a dignified life difficult, pushing many – especially the young – to seek a way out.
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“We’re like prisoners who do nothing but try to plot our escape,” Bernard Hage, a 32-year-old cartoonist and graphic designer who goes by the name “Art of Boo”, told Al Jazeera.
As the country’s only international airport reopens on Wednesday after being shut for three-and-a-half months due to COVID-19, many desperate Lebanese are looking to leave. But the effects of the crisis on the average person’s purchasing power – Lebanon’s currency has tumbled 80 percent in eight months, erasing savings painstakingly built up over decades – has made the simple act of buying a plane ticket difficult.
Hage, a freelancer, says he has not been commissioned for a new project since October. His weekly cartoon for local French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour is now his only stable source of income.
He had been applying for an artist visa to Germany last year when massive anti-establishment protests rocked Lebanon, sparked by deteriorating economic conditions. Banks have since put in place capital controls that bar account holders from transferring money abroad or withdrawing their US dollar funds.
That means even a sizable sum on a bank statement is worth little in the eyes of foreign embassies who need financial assurances when Lebanese people apply for a visa, which they must do to go to most countries.
“I’ve been left in complete limbo,” Hage said. “Every time I start thinking about finding a way out of here, I can’t even follow my own line of thought because the situation is so fluid and hazy.”
Lebanon, a waiting room
Though Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, instability never left. Rampant corruption pervades all sectors, public and private, and recurrent security incidents have created a feeling of stasis – like nothing ever changes.
“We’ve been fighting for 50 years, the same war, we don’t forget. The country is a waiting room, and the queue has reached the airport,” goes a lyric in From the Queue, a 2009 song by Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila.
Emigration is by no means new to the Lebanese, with the country’s history marked by war, famine and economic uncertainty that has cast successive waves of its offspring around the world.
There are, consequently, more people of Lebanese descent abroad than at home.
Many hoped they could alter the course of history when they rose up against the notoriously corrupt ruling class in October 2019.
For a short while, it seemed to be working. The flow of migration briefly reversed – Lebanese flew in from far afield, even if just for a weekend, in order to see with their own eyes the unprecedented spectacle of unity unfolding on the country’s streets.
At a protester-organised Independence Day parade, dozens of civilian battalions of professionals – including industrialists, doctors, and teachers – marched in place of the invite-only army parade.
Dancing, rolling suitcases and shaking tambourines, the “Diaspora Brigade,” chanted: “Toot toot toot, we’re coming back to Beirut.”
Almost cruelly, the uprising re-focused the gaze of thousands of Lebanese on their country at a time when the slide towards economic ruin had already been set in motion.
Hope has since turned to anguish.
“Honestly, I’m heartbroken,” Omar Shaar, a 28-year-old programmer, told Al Jazeera. “When we went down to the protests, you felt like everyone was in the same boat. Now it’s like a free-for-all.”
Shaar said he always knew he would leave, but he did not expect it to happen so soon. He had planned to stay in the country into his 30s to spend time with his grandparents.
“It’s their golden years, they’re in their late 80s and 90s and every day is a gift,” he said.
“But now I just can’t work here – there’s no electricity, phone lines are going down, and the exchange rate is completely f*****.”
Shaar plans to leave for Brazil with his partner, who has Brazilian citizenship. But being paid in Lebanese pounds means he would have to save up for “six to seven months to even be able to buy a ticket – and that’s now [at the current rate]”.
His concern is warranted. In just the past week, the Lebanese currency has depreciated by more than 30 percent against the US dollar – from below 6,000 pounds to $1, to more than 9,000 pounds to $1.
That makes the national minimum wage of 675,000 Lebanese pounds worth $75.
‘You can’t escape it’
The toil does not end when Lebanese get out. Many will be expected to send money back to parents and deal with the psychological toll of being far away from loved ones whose lives are falling apart.
“You can’t escape it,” Rania Taleb, a 25-year-old architecture graduate told Al Jazeera, speaking of the emotional weight of leaving family members behind.
“My anxiety is at an all-time high,” she said.
“My parents were always super pro-Lebanon until two months ago. Now it’s like, ‘when are you starting your papers?'”
Taleb is meeting an immigration lawyer next week.
In many ways, the country’s large diaspora has been Lebanon’s workhorse for decades, sending back up to $7bn per year in remittances that kept the unproductive economy afloat – until it sank.
Politicians seem to be betting on a similar system in the future. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Hassan Diab encouraged Lebanese coming back from abroad to bring dollars with them, saying there would be “no limits” to the amount they could carry.
But money coming in from abroad does not make up for the brain drain.
Those who have higher levels of education tend to make larger earnings, Nisrine Salti, assistant professor of economics at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera.
“So, to the extent that the country loses the more educated first, the national accounts will be losing a lot of value associated with their higher earnings.”
But many of those who have lived through the country’s tumultuous last eight months, flung from the heights of “thawra”, or revolution, into a free-fall that seems to have no end, feel they have been left with no other choice.
“I feel like I’m being kicked out,” said Serene Abdul-Baki, a 23-year-old writer and psychology graduate who is leaving for the United States, where she has citizenship.
“I’m coming to terms with it more every day, because you have to,” she said.
“But at the same time, it’s heartbreaking to leave. I’m going to be depressed. I think – like most of us – I’m already high-functioning depressed.”