The Lebanese Trend of Emigration: A New Peak Since 2019?

Miguel Mendelek, Research Affiliate, IMS


Lebanon has an enduring history of emigration. Amid Lebanon’s confessional complexities, emigration patterns cut across most, if not all junctural events and define the country’s socio-political identity to this day. Since the 19th century, emigration from the Mutasarrifiya (Mount Lebanon) and later from Greater Lebanon has been unceasing. Throughout, scholars have described emigration through major “waves”, each of which identifies a specific era in the country’s migratory history. These waves are not detached from one another despite fluctuating in intensity. Rather, they are defined by similar political, social, and economic “push factors” which together serve as the foundation for the Lebanese trend of migration. In an analysis of the repeating patterns of emigration, this paper explores a possibly new wave that was catalyzed by a sharp economic and political breakdown shortly after the 2019 October protests. In this most recent wave, emigration is estimated to have peaked at an all-time high in post-war Lebanon.

Overview of Lebanon’s System of Governance and Emigration

Emigration from Lebanon is as old as the country’s consociational power-sharing system. Since the establishment of the Mutasarifiya system (1860) until today, Lebanon’s governance continues to reestablish power-sharing among the major sects while weakening the state. This model of governance, under which inter-sectarian grievances uninterruptedly sprout, has created enough “push factors” to fuel an ongoing emigration trend. The chronic waves of emigration from Lebanon have stemmed from recurring political stalemates, economic breakdowns, and armed clashes. As a result, an emigration wave emerged (and peaked) with every critical political and economic downturn, the most recent of which most likely took place during (and following) the 2019 October protests.

A Short Review of Emigration Waves

Through major waves, a diaspora larger than Lebanon’s population itself is present in most corners of the world. Migration Scholar, Dr. Paul Tabar, classifies the waves of emigration in modern Lebanon into four: the first two took place from the Mutasarifiya (<1870 and 1900-1914) and the second two from Greater Lebanon (1945-1975 and 1975-1989). Across the four waves, similar political and economic factors that compelled the Lebanese to desert their homeland were reproduced.

In the Mutasarifiya, the integration of Lebanon into Western capitalist markets and the collapse of the local silk industry before giants like Japan and China pushed many Lebanese to previously unvisited destinations (e.g., Canada, South America, Australia, West Africa, Europe, etc.). In Greater Lebanon, inter-sectarian strife (e.g., the 1958 crisis and the 1975 civil war), notwithstanding the political repercussions of Arab-Israel wars (e.g., 1967), paralleled by a relatively stable yet unemployable economy, has forced many to escape distress (especially to Australia, Canada, USA, France, Germany and emerging markets in the Gulf).  

In the post-war era, Lebanon’s emigration has been dubbed an interminable “brain drain”. To escape the country’s already limited market, deep-rooted corruption, and clientelism – which together prevented the highly skilled and politically unaffiliated individuals from finding “rewarding employment opportunities” – many young members of the labor force left in masses. Nonetheless, up until 2019, this period had been tarnished by sporadic military events (e.g., the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), recurring inter-sectarian strife, and political impasses. These factors, combined with the absence of a reliable infrastructure and the restricted access to fundamental services, contributed to the allure of emigration.  

By 2019, a significant wave of emigrants outweighing more conventional numbers began to unfold amid the outburst of Lebanon’s aggravating and unaddressed political and economic crises. The latest wave, buttressed by endemic crises at its roots, created a very favorable milieu for the catalysis of a new emigration peak.  Amidst the state’s hazardous response to the escalating crises, Lebanon subsequently saw an exponential and unprecedented spike in the number of emigrants.

Emigration Since 2019: A New Wave?

For years, many Lebanese citizens have sat in a “waiting room” seeking voyage. In 2019, Lebanon’s “tapestry of deadlocks” exploded in a “revolution”, after which the country sunk into deepening crises. Among them are the resignment of the government, the COVID-19 pandemic, the devaluation of the Lebanese Lira, and the high inflation rates (e.g.,  144.12% inflation rate by September 2021). Adding to these complications, the August 4 Beirut blast further aggravated the catastrophes and plunged Lebanon into a steep collapse in every way. The Lebanese, thereafter, were left scrambling for their basic needs for survival.

Consequently, emigration skyrocketed. According to Information International, between 2018 and 2021, 195,433 Lebanese emigrated. Since then, the trend has been on a sharp increase, interrupted by a short break in 2020. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of emigrants dropped by 49,085, only to increase again by 60,056 in 2021. Between the protests and the blast, this article argues, was a lull period of awaiting. However, the blast’s shock waves abruptly interrupted this short period and became the main trigger for a new emigration increase. In 2021 alone, 77,777 Lebanese, i.e., around 40% of the total emigrants between 2018 and 2021, departed. As aforementioned, the severe economic meltdown, followed by a prolonged political stalemate, staged one of the largest mass exoduses of the “nouveau poor” Lebanese (post the civil war’s  990,000 estimated emigrants).

Demographic Implications of Emigration

The pillars of Lebanon’s consociational democratic system are demography and religion. Since the earliest waves of emigration, the recurring patterns have altered Lebanon’s demographic composition, in turn making minorities majorities (e.g., Sunnis and Shiites) and majorities minorities (e.g., Christians), notwithstanding fertility rates and other variables. The demographic implications of emigration have also in great part redefined the power-sharing arrangement between the different sectarian components. For instance, the pre-war 6:5 Christian-Muslim power-sharing formula compared to the 5:5 Christian-Muslim post-war formula does reflect, in addition to key political factors, Lebanon’s changing demographic dominance.

The latest wave happens as part of a long historical sequence, yet at a critical juncture in Lebanon’s history. Although this piece does not consider the sectarian divisions of emigrants, these numbers remain of high significance for Lebanon’s demographic composition. Today, the country’s structure of governance is either on the verge of absolute collapse or absolute reform. At least, the implications of emigration waves will greatly determine Lebanon’s new social and political contract.


The common denominator for emigration in Lebanon is a failing system of rule. The complex web of paralyses has given the Lebanese many incentives to emigrate and very few motives to stay. A close inspection of the latest peak in emigration suggests that it follows the same factorial pattern as its predecessors. The Lebanese trend of emigration has thus evolved in the same fashion since at least the civil war. The pattern, however, is not projected to halt, but rather recreate the same factors for emigration in the foreseen future. Over centuries, the Lebanese truly made Lebanon a country of emigration and of their emigrant status a painful identity for a failing state.