Commentary

The decision to emigrate

Travelers at Beirut Airport, March 5, 2020. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

“Do I stay for the sake of my parents, or do I leave for the sake of my children?”

This is a painful decision that resonates in the mind of every individual willing to emigrate and summarizes the dilemma that many Lebanese have faced for various reasons during Lebanon’s history since the country’s inception.

Today, we are witnessing yet another wave, a “tsunami wave” of Lebanese migration that is increasingly compounding the country’s “brain drain.”

But will they come back?

The decision to emigrate is very personal and usually depends on many “push” and “pull” factors, whether voluntarily or forcefully. These factors include natural disasters, conflicts, wars, economic and educational prospects, poverty, safety, security and the desire to provide a better future for one’s family or children.

In all cases, it is a hard decision to make and is often accompanied by some sacrifices for the emigrant and his/her family. The prospects of a better income or other benefits are contrasted with psychological impacts, adaptation to a new culture and environment, and possible distortion and uprooting of the family. Undoubtedly, migration changes the life and dynamics of the entire family forever.

In the case of Lebanon, the country has endured numerous waves of migration, mainly due to its constant political instability and its repercussion on the economic and social development.

This has created a dual effect. Although emigration contributes to what is called a “brain drain” or loss in human capital across decades, it has nonetheless formed a widespread Lebanese diaspora across the globe, surpassing in number the total population of Lebanese in Lebanon, which has led to a high rate of remittances, the main source of foreign currency and created an international network giving the Lebanese easy access to global markets and international support in times of crisis.

In his paper on “Lebanon: A Country of Emigration and Immigration,” Dr. Paul Tabar shows how migratory waves have changed in patterns and characteristics over time in Lebanon but the most common element among them is unfortunately youth. He has broken down the migration pattern in Lebanon into waves.

The first wave, referred to as the “early Lebanese migration,” occurred more than a century and a half ago, when semi-skilled and unskilled inhabitants went mainly to the United States of America or Latin American countries to seek fortunes and opportunities for commercial activities.

The second wave was post World War II, with the same characteristics as the first but to a broader range of destinations, including Australia, New Zealand, France and other European and African countries. After Lebanon gained its independence, emigration slowed down until 1967, when it picked up again due to the Arab-Israeli war, coupled by increasing unemployment and living costs paralleled with a high demand for skilled labor in the Gulf pulling more Lebanese youth to seek employment in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates. Another wave occurred during the Civil War period (1975-89) when a great number of skilled and professional inhabitants headed to the West and the Gulf states. Most of the emigrants of this category have made settled permanently in their host countries.

In another study on “Decision to emigrate amongst the youth in Lebanon,” the authors G. Dibeh, A. Fakih and W. Marrouch mentioned another wave that took place during the post-Civil War era (1990- present) that was sometimes slowed down during the short periods of reconstruction and stability. This phase is characterized by the “Brain Drain” beginning in the 1990s when highly educated youth were attracted toward better job opportunities and higher incomes abroad. Their decision was based on factors including poverty, corruption, political instability and continuous rise in public debt and internal and external conflicts. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the series of following events, emigration has increased further due to relentless economic crises and political instability.

Today, the situation is darkest. The Lebanese economy, weakened by a governance crisis and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, has collapsed. According to the World Bank, the country’s GDP has dropped by almost 40 percent, and more than 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The Lebanese pound has sunk by more than 90 percent. With unemployment and prices skyrocketing, and limited or no access to water, electricity, fuel, or health services, it becomes hard to meet one’s basic needs.

The Beirut explosion and the government’s inaction have completely eroded the people’s trust in their government, which is not only refusing to carry out critical reforms but has also caused a huge humanitarian tragedy.

Many are now eager to leave their country in search of a “normal life.” The decision to emigrate today emanates from “crushed” hopes, fear of a dark future and most importantly the disbelief in the efficiency of the ruling system.

The situation is unfortunately a “deliberate crisis,” or a “deliberate depression” as the World Bank has put it, made by those who are shockingly still in power, and with no plan to fix it.

There appears to be no way out of these crises before the removal of those in power. Until then, the decision to emigrate will remain an easy one, and this time with no intention of returning.

Dima El Hassan is a consultant at the Hariri Foundation for Human Development.

 

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