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

Miguel Mendelek
Research Affiliate, IMS; Assistant Project Coordinator, Institute of Development Studies, AIW

 

Introduction

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 ongoing and consistent. Throughout, scholars have described emigration through major “waves”, each of which describes a specific era in the country’s migratory history. These waves, which although fluctuate in intensity, are not detached from one another. They are rather defined by similar “push factors”. These political, social, and economic variables together serve as the foundation for the Lebanese trend of migration and brain drain. In the repeating pattern of emigration, this piece underscores a new wave which was catalyzed by a sharp economic and political breakdown shortly after the 2019 October protests. In this most recent wave, emigration 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 power-sharing system. Lebanon’s system of governance, under which inter-sectarian grievances uninterruptedly sprout, has created enough “push factors” to fuel this ongoing emigration trend. The chronic waves of emigration from Lebanon stem from political stalemates, economic breakdowns, and armed clashes. Since the 19th century, communities in Lebanon have struggled to coexist, while largely agreeing to flee. The Consociational Democratic system in Lebanon serves as a direct mechanism contributing to emigration, and continues to serve as a foundation for many citizens living outside the country. Since the Mutasarifiya system (1860) until today, Lebanon’s system of governance reestablishes power-sharing among the major sects, while weakening the state. As a result, an emigration wave emerged (and peaked) with every critical political and economic downturn, the most recent of which took place during (and following) the 2019 October Protests.

A Short Review of Emigration Waves

Through large waves, a diaspora larger than Lebanon’s population itself has its feet in most corners of the world. Migration Scholar, Dr. Paul Tabar, classifies the waves of emigration in Modern Lebanon into four, the first two of which 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 were reproduced that pushed the Lebanese to leave. 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., 1958 and the 1975 civil war), notwithstanding the political repercussions of Arab-Israel wars (e.g., 1967), paralleled by a stable yet unemployable economy, has seen many escape distress (especially to Australia, Canada, USA, France, Germany, emerging markets in the Gulf etc.).  

In the post war era, Lebanon’s emigration has been dubbed an interminable “brain drain”. Throughout, many highly skilled and young members of the labor force left the country’s already limited market in masses. Also, deep-seeded corruption and clientelism prevented the highly skilled and the politically unaffiliated from finding “rewarding employment opportunities”. This period, nevertheless, was not freed from sporadic military events (e.g., 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), recurring inter-sectarian tensions and political deadlocks, which in great part contributed to emigration.

By 2019, a significant wave of emigrants that outweighs more conventional numbers, began to unfold amid the outburst of Lebanon’s aggravating and unaddressed political and economic crises. Indeed, these crises, together, have recreated a new peak for emigration. The latest wave has the combination of two prime elements, political and economic turmoil, at its roots. When one fails, emigration ushers. When both fail, emigration spikes. After 2019, both failed. Thereby, Lebanon saw an exponential increase in the number of emigrants in great part due to the state’s hazardous response to the compounded and unprecedented crises.

Emigration Since 2019: A New Wave?

For years, many Lebanese citizens have sat in a “waiting room” to leave Lebanon. By 2019 however, the average middle-class citizen finally sought voyage. In 2019, Lebanon’s “tapestry of deadlocks” exploded in a “revolution”, after which the country sunk into deepening crises. More than one year later, in the aftermath of the August 4 Beirut blast, Lebanon fell into deep economic deterioration (e.g., 144.12% inflation rate by September 2021), leaving Lebanese citizens to struggle for their basic needs of survival. By 2019, emigration skyrocketed. According to Information International, between 2018 and 2021, 195,433 Lebanese emigrated.  Since then, the trend has been one of 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 has become 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, booked their one-way ticket. As mentioned earlier, when both, economy and political governance fail, emigration epitomizes. Thus, the severe economic meltdown, which began to unfold few years earlier, followed by a prolonged political stalemate, staged the one of the largest mass exoduses of the “nouveaux poor” Lebanese (post the war’s 990,000 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, making of minorities majorities (e.g., Sunnis and Shiites) and majorities minorities (e.g., Christians), notwithstanding fertility rates. Its implications have also affected the system of governance, its major religious components, and the power-sharing system. For instance, the prewar 6:5 Christian-Muslim formula compared to the 5:5 Christian-Muslim post war formula reflects, notwithstanding other political factors, Lebanon’s changing demographic sectarian composition. The latest wave happens as part of a long historical and political sequence; yet, at a critical juncture of 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, emigration waves, particularly the most recent one, will define in great part, Lebanon’s new social and political contract.

Conclusion

The common denominator for emigration in Lebanon is a failing system of rule. The complex web of political paralysis has given the Lebanese many incentives to emigrate and little incentives to stay. Indeed, the latest peak in emigration follows the same factorial pattern of its predecessors. The Lebanese trend of emigration is thus evolving 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 of Lebanon a country of emigration, and of their emigrant status a painful identity for a failing state.