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Lebanon Is in Terminal Brain Drain

As the country’s economy goes into free fall, there’s a rush for the exits that could hamstring the country for generations.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Lebanese doctors chant slogans as they take part in ongoing anti-government demonstrations in central Beirut on Nov. 12, 2019.
Lebanese doctors chant slogans as they take part in ongoing anti-government demonstrations in central Beirut on Nov. 12, 2019. PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images

Jean Anton, a cafe owner in a cosmopolitan and affluent neighborhood of Beirut, is planning to leave Lebanon for Europe. Over the last two years, the economic crisis in the country has depleted the earnings of most Lebanese and halved his customers. The currency has plummeted and led to a concomitant spike in prices of basic commodities, multiplying his expenses by 10. His revenue has been slashed by 80 percent even after he increased the selling price of a cup of coffee and cake to make up for the jump in costs. “By the end of this year, if not earlier, we will be out of here,” Anton said. “Nothing is going to improve, and it has become impossible to live a decent life here.”

He is forced to pull down the shutters of his shop every afternoon for hours as the local electricity provider turns off the generator. The state is bankrupt and unable to purchase fuel in the quantities required, and the scarcity has led to severe power shortages. Even though Anton pays an exorbitant sum every month for a connection to the neighborhood generator, power supply through the day is not guaranteed.

Anton is not alone. All the businesses on the street, once packed with tourists, are struggling to survive, and many have shut, while others are pondering their exit. Most of Anton’s upper- to middle-class clientele who are still visiting his cafe—fashion designers, architects, advertisers—are also leaving for Cyprus or somewhere else in Europe, one after the other, over the next few months. They love Lebanon’s locales, its mountains and beaches, but not the power cuts nor being paid a fraction of their former salaries.

Jean Anton, a cafe owner in a cosmopolitan and affluent neighborhood of Beirut, is planning to leave Lebanon for Europe. Over the last two years, the economic crisis in the country has depleted the earnings of most Lebanese and halved his customers. The currency has plummeted and led to a concomitant spike in prices of basic commodities, multiplying his expenses by 10. His revenue has been slashed by 80 percent even after he increased the selling price of a cup of coffee and cake to make up for the jump in costs. “By the end of this year, if not earlier, we will be out of here,” Anton said. “Nothing is going to improve, and it has become impossible to live a decent life here.”

He is forced to pull down the shutters of his shop every afternoon for hours as the local electricity provider turns off the generator. The state is bankrupt and unable to purchase fuel in the quantities required, and the scarcity has led to severe power shortages. Even though Anton pays an exorbitant sum every month for a connection to the neighborhood generator, power supply through the day is not guaranteed.

Anton is not alone. All the businesses on the street, once packed with tourists, are struggling to survive, and many have shut, while others are pondering their exit. Most of Anton’s upper- to middle-class clientele who are still visiting his cafe—fashion designers, architects, advertisers—are also leaving for Cyprus or somewhere else in Europe, one after the other, over the next few months. They love Lebanon’s locales, its mountains and beaches, but not the power cuts nor being paid a fraction of their former salaries.

Professionals providing essential services such as doctors, nurses, and engineers, as well as academics and entrepreneurs, are the first to relocate in such situations. Economists say that even though data is scant, the trends are worrying. In a December 2020 assessment, the World Bank warned that brain drain was becoming an “increasingly desperate option” in Lebanon, as the economic crisis ranks in possibly the top three most severe crises in the world since the mid-19th century. “The sharp deterioration in basic services would have long-term implications,” the World Bank said in June, including mass migration. “Permanent damage to human capital would be very hard to recover. Perhaps this dimension of the Lebanese crisis makes the Lebanon episode unique compared to other global crises.”

First anger, then hopelessness, and now escape. Over the last two years, the Lebanese have witnessed their economy’s uninterrupted slide and a blast at Beirut’s port that further revealed the incompetence and criminal negligence of the ruling elite. They hope neither for justice nor for any change under any government with the same political class in charge. Those who can find jobs abroad or move in with friends or family overseas are leaving. Many others are waiting for their opportunity.

Experts say the current spurt in brain drain will have a lasting impact on a country grappling with myriad crises. The flight of human capital will exacerbate the collapse of an economy already in a tailspin and impede its recovery.

But the desperation levels are so high that 77 percent of Lebanese youth wish to get out, according to one survey. In fact, in the Arab world, young Lebanese are at the top of the list of those who wish to escape their country, ahead of 54 percent of their contemporaries in war-stricken Syria and 58 percent of young Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

According to some estimates, 20 percent of Lebanese doctors have left, or are planning to leave, since the economic crisis gripped the nation in 2019, and hundreds of pharmacies have shut down, rendering the pharmacists unemployed. A steady exodus of health care staff such as nurses is ongoing, and hundreds have been lured by the Gulf countries. Rita Howayek, a physiotherapist, said she has witnessed dozens of resignations at her hospital in the northern city of Tripoli. “They went to Saudi [Arabia], Qatar, Canada, anywhere,” Howayek said. “They must send money home to their parents.”

Half a dozen engineers are reportedly seeking recommendation letters from their bosses daily to apply for jobs outside the country, and more than 1,500 faculty and staff at the American University of Beirut, which includes the school’s medical center, have bolted over the last two years, according to reporting by the Institute of Current World Affairs. Charlotte Karam, an associate professor at the university who works on women’s empowerment in the region, is one of them. She says, in her estimation, 40 percent of her colleagues have quit and that the numbers will go up this year. A combination of personal, professional, and financial issues, all instigated by the economic crisis, made her leave Lebanon despite her love of it. “How could I continue my work in a collapsing country?” she said. “Of course, with the reduction in salary, I also wanted a dignified life. An additional reason was that my husband had to close his business because of the economic crisis.”

The school and university fees have spiked while the economy contracted by a mammoth 20 percent in 2020 and is expected to contract by 9.5 percent this year, according to World Bank estimates. Unemployment is on the rise, and most young people simply don’t see a point in living in a country where they fear they might never find a job. Jana is a Lebanese college student who moved to New York last year and flew back to attend the commemoration of the Beirut port blast on its one-year anniversary. “There was no future here,” she said while marching along with thousands of protesters on Aug. 4. “That is why I took a transfer from the American University of Beirut to a uni[versity] in New York.”

Diplomatic sources in two European missions in Lebanon told Foreign Policy that they have witnessed an increase in the number of visa applications from Lebanese seeking to resettle in their countries. “The middle classes are reaching out to us in big numbers to find out how to get employment, a work visa, and in general how to move legally. Mainly engineers, I would say,” said a German diplomatic source. “We are providing assistance to schools and hospitals and other institutions,” a French diplomatic source added, “to ensure the Lebanese can continue their work here and have a future inside Lebanon.”

Among professions, bankers are the most despised since the banks blocked Lebanese from withdrawing their savings and imposed an unofficial haircut on small depositors. Many are hedging their bets. Khaled Zeidan, a former banker, said that while many employees are planning to leave the country, it is much harder for chairs and CEOs, although some seem to want to abandon ship. “The stigma of being a banker is taking its toll,” he said. “I expect no less than 50 percent will exit the sector from the total headcount before Oct. 17, 2019, and of course the employees are already leaving or planning to leave because of financial pressures.”

Lebanon’s short history as an independent nation is replete with conflicts and crises that forced people to flee. Generations of Lebanese emigrated and settled in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. The largest exodus took place during the 15-year civil war. As the war ended in 1990, many Lebanese found hope and returned but then fled again during the 2006 war with Israel. As a result, the diaspora today is nearly three times the size of Lebanon’s population of 5 million.

For the last decade and a half, however, migration patterns had been relatively stable—until two years ago, when protesters exposed the house of cards on which Lebanon’s central bank built the country’s economy, and it all came tumbling down.

Unlike their ancestors or more recently their Syrian neighbors, the current generation of Lebanese are not fleeing bombs, yet they say the economic pressures are overwhelming. Mohammad Shehadeh, a protester in Beirut, remembers the violence during the civil war but says economically it has never been harder than it is now. “For instance, we used to have fuel during the civil war,” he said. “Now it is so scarce that even after standing in the line for hours there is no guarantee.” Shehadeh admits that most of his friends have left, yet he wants to stay back and fight for his country. “Who will be here if we leave? Who do we leave the country to?”

To leave or not to leave—that is the question Lebanon’s professionals are asking as most find it challenging to live off their diminishing salaries. The biggest concern for the rest of the world, meanwhile, should be that the most vulnerable sections of Lebanese society will end up resorting to hiring smugglers for boat rides to Greece. Last year, a boat packed with dozens of Lebanese and Syrians tried to reach Cyprus but was left stranded by smugglers. A toddler died in his mother’s arms after days of no food or water.

More than half of Lebanon’s people now live below the poverty line. The international community is acutely aware of the repercussions this situation could have on Europe. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron helped raise $370 million in humanitarian aid at an international conference to help the most needy in Lebanon, partly to avoid social disorder in the country—but also to ensure Lebanese do not become refugees posing a new challenge for the European Union.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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