Activists and families of the victims of the port blast in Beirut, Lebanon, protest in front of the Justice Palace on Wednesday. The aftermath of the explosion is one of many crises driving a mass exodus from the country. Photo by Nabil Mounzer/EPA-EFE
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Mounting economic hardships are pushing a growing number of Lebanon's population to seek a better life abroad in another mass exodus.
"We are planning to leave... We are working on an exit plan," Mira Mabsout, a landscape architect who is married with one daughter, told UPI.
It's a common refrain.
Mabsout and her husband are "lucky and blessed." They have good jobs and are well paid, mostly in U.S. "fresh dollars," worth 17,000 Lebanese pounds at the market trade, compared to 1,500 LL at the official exchange rate and 3,900 LL at the banks.
"But financial reasons are not everything... We don't feel safe," Mabsout said. She mostly fears for her 3-year-old daughter and the inability to secure proper medical care with the collapse of the health system.
Besides the dramatic economic and financial deterioration, the massive explosion at the Beirut port in August 2020 was a turning point. The blast killed more than 200, wounded 6,000 and damaged the homes of more than 300,000.
"We are looking anywhere outside [Lebanon]. We tried to go to Athens ... but it didn't work," Mabsout said. "We are not leaving just to leave ... without securing jobs outside."
However, she is longing to "live a normal life," and not to worry every day about electricity and gasoline.
Lebanon has been facing crippling fuel and electricity shortages that increased power blackouts and led to hours-long queues at the gas stations.
"My daughter knows that there is a fuel crisis and that gasoline is a big problem to us... and this is something that kills me. Even if I want to hide it, she is living that," Mabsout said. "Also, I want to grow my family and have other children, but I cannot because I cannot find diapers, baby milk or basic needs."
Seeking a normal life is all she wants as she believes the situation in Lebanon will not get better.
"I don't feel like to be resilient, and I don't want to adapt.. I simply want normal things," she added.
Passport applications increase
Last month, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon's General Security Directorate, disclosed that his agency, which usually handles 3,000 passport applications per day, has been receiving 7,000 and 8,000 every day.
"But this does not mean that all [applicants] are actually leaving the country," said Dal Hitti, president of Moubadarat Wa Kararat (Initiatives and Decisions) Association, who has a doctorate in human resources.
Although no official statistics are available, Hitti estimated the number of those who left the country since the economic crisis broke out in 2019 to range between 400,000 and 500,000, including students, doctors and other highly skilled workers. They are now being followed by families heading mainly to Canada.
The 1975-90 civil war witnessed the largest exodus, with the emigration of nearly 980,000 people. Between 1990 and 2019, some 750,000 people have left, Hitti said.
"We have been living in a bubble since the 1990s, and we lost the feeling of belonging, contrary to the time of the civil war, when people remained steadfast and stayed in the country more than now, despite the difficult situation then," he said.
Dubai, an attractive but expensive spot, is hosting 70,000-75,000 Lebanese who left. But 50,000 of them haven't found jobs, and "some are accepting meager salaries barely reaching $1,000 a month just to help their parents or hoping to get a better job, while the minimum wage there is $4,000."
"This is no more about desperation. This is suicide," Hitti said.
The Crisis Observatory at the American University of Beirut recently warned that Lebanon is entering a third wave of mass emigration, citing three alarming indicators: the high percentage of Lebanese youth who want to leave (77% based on a survey last year, the highest percentage among Arab countries), the mass migration of medical and education staff and the expected chronicity of the current crisis.
"The last wave of emigration was not a reaction to a conflict, a war. It was genuinely because of the conditions that deteriorated so much," said Dr. Jasmin Diab, assistant professor of Migration Studies at the Lebanese American University.
Lebanon, Diab explained, always had "intersection crisis," and the current one was not just about the COVID-19 pandemic, constraints about the politics and economy but also the Beirut port blast, and people having lost their homes and not having access to their money frozen at the banks.
Moreover, the recent fuel crisis has "so much humiliated" the population to the point that "getting bread or gasoline becomes an achievement."
"There are so many intersections why people want to migrate in this period," Diab told UPI, adding that COVID-19 exasperated the situation further. Then came the port explosion, which "was definitely a major push factor ...that put the Lebanese on a high level of emergency."
Many countries, like Canada and across Europe, became more lenient in their emigration policies, facilitating migration of the Lebanese for a short time as a reaction to the explosion, Diab said.
"Our country is not in a state of conflict or violence. So, the Lebanese could not seek asylum like the Syrians, although interestingly, things are very similar on both ends," she said. "Lebanese want to leave, but the international community does not consider Lebanon in a state of emergency."
Still, not everyone wants to leave.
Glynis Mason Jabbour, a 72-year-old British woman who has lived in Beirut since she arrived in 1974 to work as an English teacher, is not ready to move back to London, although she recently lost her Lebanese husband, and her 38-year-old son decided to settle there.
"At the moment, the pull of Beirut is much stronger than the pull of London," Jabbour said. "I love London. I will have a fabulous time. But after two weeks, I will be pulled back to Beirut: to my home, my memories, the blue sky, to my quarters, where people will say, 'Where have you been? We missed you'... How can I start to build that again in London?"
Having lived through the civil war and the 1982 Israeli invasion, Jabbour said she is used to hardships.
"I have been in Beirut for two-thirds of my life.... I made my decision to stay. I may eventually be forced to leave, when my Lebanese pounds run out, or my landlady puts up my rent, but I made my decision, and I will stay as long as I can."