Lebanon, a small country in the Middle East, has been in a state of systematic collapse for the past two years. It started with the financial crisis – described by the World Bank as one of the worst crises in the last 150 years – in late October 2019 which has effectively destroyed all sectors in the Lebanese state triggering multiple crises (World Bank 2021). Currently, there are medical crises, fuel and electricity crises, food crises, and a water crisis. Lebanon’s currency has lost almost 90% of its value on the black market (Mounier-Kuhn, 2021). The purpose of this article is to primarily examine the struggles of Lebanese, migrant and refugee populations in the current financial disaster in Lebanon. There have been reports circulating that hint at large scale exodus of people from Lebanon with people leaving via immigration or simply relocating and other people taking the dangerous route by sea.
Lebanon’s Political Context (2019-2021)
The state of the Lebanese economy is governed by the interest of the political class. Lebanon’s politics is characterised by an exceedingly corrupt and sectarian structure. Inherent political corruption and stagnation serve as direct causes for the financial crisis in Lebanon. Some experts have described Lebanon’s financial system as a nationally regulated Ponzi scheme, where money is borrowed to pay existing creditors (Makdisi, 2021). As long as there was money flowing into Lebanon, this arrangement remained operational. For years, Lebanon has relied on US dollars brought in by Lebanese people working overseas and by gulf investors (Mounier-Kuhn, 2021). Expats started to avoid sending their money to Lebanon because of the continuous political quagmires, such as the long periods of time where the country did not have a president from 2014 until the end of 2016. Furthermore, the growing influence of Hezbollah – one of the most prominent parties in Lebanon – many Gulf States has stopped their investments in the country.
General parliamentary elections were scheduled for May 2018. When the Lebanese state needed to rein in spending, the politicians splurged on a public sector pay rise – a tactic to garner more support for the elections (Blair, 2020). After that, the government failed to deliver reforms that deterred foreign donors from loaning billions of US dollars in aid (Blair, 2020). It was only a matter of time before there was some kind of financial stress in the country. In late 2019, the newly formed government drew up a plan to tax WhatsApp calls. Given that Lebanon has a large diaspora and a low tax regime that was skewed in favour of the rich, placing a tax on an electronic platform many people used to communicate with loved ones in the country and abroad proved disastrous. Eventually, protests broke out in many parts of Lebanon in October that year; however, since then there have been no attempts by the government to assess the financial crisis. The political class has resumed their squabbles over the control of Lebanon’s resources. Furthermore, Lebanon hasn’t had a government for over a year now.
When the Coronavirus pandemic hit Lebanon in March 2020, it further exacerbated the financial crisis. Many private companies and small businesses closed down as they were already struggling to pay their employees and to bring in necessary products. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs (Joyner et al., 2021). The situation has gotten so terrible in Lebanon that no one could have imagined how it could get worse, but then it did in the summer. On the 4th of August, the second largest non-nuclear blast erupted in the port of the capital Beirut. Hundreds lost their lives; thousands of other people were injured and displaced from their homes (Human Rights Watch 2021). Local and international non-governmental organisations volunteered, where they could, to help the injured and displaced repair their homes and neighbourhoods. There is, however, a limit to how much they can aid the Lebanese people. The Beirut blast further deterred tourists and travellers from coming to Lebanon.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Food prices have increased by a staggering 400% between January and December 2020 (). Furthermore, humanitarian needs are increasing among the Lebanese and migrant communities. There is a lack of food security, nutrition, water and health, education and sanitation (ESCWA, 2020). As of March, this year, 78% of the Lebanese population was estimated to be below the poverty line with more than a third of the population facing extreme poverty (ESCWA, 2020). Some families struggle to buy meat or bread because of the high prices but also the lack of products in the shops. Business owners cannot afford to restock their shops. New mothers struggle to find baby products for their infants – these products are usually found in pharmacies. Basic medicine is a difficult commodity to find in Lebanon. In some cases, people travel to a number of pharmacies in an attempt to find the necessary medical supplies. Travellers coming to Lebanon often come with bags full of medical goods for their families. Because of Lebanon’s financial crisis, the government cannot afford to bring fuel into the country. Another result of the crisis is the strict rules implemented by Lebanese banks on their customers. There was a limit to how much money a Lebanese can withdraw from their own savings (Azhari, 2020). Nowadays, people are only able to withdraw in Lebanese pounds which is essentially worthless. This has been the situation in Lebanon since November 2019. Peoples’ savings have been held hostage by the banks. There is no money to be made or spent.
There is also a fuel shortage which means people have less and less access to electricity. Some areas in Lebanon receive less than three hours of power. The electricity crisis effectively halts prominent institutions such as hospitals, schools, universities and workplaces (Mroue, 2021). Several hospitals have had to release patients because they can longer keep machines on for a long period of time (Mroue 2021). Hospitals in Lebanon do usually have backup generators but there is a shortage of fuel. School and university students are unable to conduct their studies as they cannot operate electronic devices in libraries and laboratories. Professionals are unable to work at their companies or at home as they also mainly use computers. Lack of electricity determines how little people can charge their phones and laptops.
It is extremely difficult for people to fill up their vehicles because there is a lack of fuel and there are some gas station owners who refuse to sell their product in Lebanese pounds. This issue unequivocally affects everyone in the country. Transport, either private or public, is used for everything from traveling to school or work. Several videos have circulated on social media in the past few months showing long lines of cars waiting for their turns at gas stations (Taleb, 2021). In a few instances, there have been violent incidents between individuals over fuel.
Finally, reports have demonstrated the possibility of a water crisis in Lebanon. UNICEF (2021) warned that most water pumping would gradually cease to operate across the country within the month as the country’s power system falters. Water pumping mechanisms are not available to everyone. Bottled water is also very popular amongst the Lebanese which is believed to guarantee cleaner water; however, the cost of bottled water has significantly increased. In 2019, 1,000 Lebanese pounds could buy four litres of bottled water. This is not the case today (Hussein et al. 2021). As of August 2021, 1,000 pounds can only buy a 500 ml water bottle (Hussein et al. 2021). More impoverished regions in the country are more at risk from this crisis. Regions such as the city of Tripoli in the North, Beirut, the large district of Baalbek in the East and the Bekkaa valley in South Lebanon (Hussein et al., 2021).
On the Run: People Continue to Leave Lebanon
The financial catastrophe has left the Lebanese population with very few options. Local news coverage reveals that people are leaving the country in masses (Kenner, 2021). Many people who carry foreign passports find it much easier to leave than Lebanese nationals. A few months ago, multiple articles published indicated that Lebanese physicians are leaving in droves (Collard, 2021). An estimated 1,000 medical professionals have left the country since the August blast last year. The medical staff in Lebanon has lost up to 90% of the value of their salaries (Collard, 2021). Furthermore, the currency crisis is making it increasingly more difficult to import medication and medical equipment into the country.
Lebanese from lower income families have no choice but to resort to dangerous avenues to leave the country. ABC News Australia reported that Lebanese families are taking the dangerous journey across the sea to Cyprus in late 2020. Boat journeys are dangerous because people are exposed to smugglers and harm. A small family – a mother and a son – from Tripoli attempted to make this journey to Cyprus (Tlozek et al., 2020). They took bags of food for the journey but the bags were taken by the organisers of the trip (Tlozek et al., 2020). Two young boys died of thirst on the boat and eventually, the remaining family members returned to Lebanon by a Turkish ship (). So the family returned without their children or their money (Tlozek et al., 2020). Tripoli is one of the largest and poorest cities in Lebanon.
The few cases provided here illustrate how dire the situation is for Lebanese nationals; however, for migrants and refugees, the situation is much worse. Migrant and refugee populations are more vulnerable to oppression by the Lebanese government. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in Lebanon, refugees have been neglected by the government specifically in relation to the vaccination strategy. Nadia Hardmen, a refugee and migrant rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, stated that a third of the population of Lebanon – the refugees and migrants – is at risk (Human Rights Watch, 2021). Syrian refugees interviewed by HRW raised concerns over arrest, imprisonment and even deportation if they registered their interests for vaccinations through a government-managed platform, especially those who do not have legal residency in Lebanon (Wallis, 2021). Basically, only 20% of 1.5 Syrian refugees in Lebanon have the legal right to live in the country (Wallis, 2021). Palestinian refugees do not share the same fears over arrest and deportation; however, they have very little trust in the Lebanese government. For decades, the Lebanese government has systematically discriminated and barred Palestinian refugees from getting government social services, including health care.
Another prominent migrant community in Lebanon is the mostly female-populated migrant population living under the oppressive kafala system. These workers are usually employed in homes where they work as housekeepers or caretakers; other types of work include cleaning at hospitals or restaurants. Many of these women come from African and South-Eastern countries, such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. As they fall under the kafala system – a restrictive regime whereby the workers’ movement is restricted and their visa(s) and legal status are determined by the whims of their employers (Rak 2020). Moreover, as soon as a migrant worker is employed by a household or a domestic recruitment agency, she has to submit her passport – a tactic used to suppress her freedom of movement. If the household does not approve of the worker, they could deport her. In some cases, domestic migrant workers are emotionally and physically abused by their employers (Amnesty 2020). In other cases, migrant workers have been murdered by their employers (Amnesty 2020). Because of the financial crisis in the country, many migrant workers have been left jobless as many Lebanese no longer have the means to pay them their wages. Furthermore, a group of domestic workers was left on the streets of Beirut (Randhawa 2020).
The circumstances cannot be any worse for these communities, hence, understandably, many of them try to leave Lebanon. A significant portion of these communities is of lower-income backgrounds. There are over 1.5 million Syrian refugees who fled their own country and have settled in Lebanon for the last decade (Human Rights Watch, 2018). Already displaced Syrians are even more vulnerable to people’s smuggling. In May 2021, Lebanese police said that they had prevented dozens of Syrians from reaching Cyprus by sea. Over a week before this particular incident, the army stopped 69 Syrians in Akkar in north Lebanon, near the Syrian border, and arrested the smuggler who planned to take them to Cyprus (Bathke, 2021). Lebanese authorities found that there have been numerous vessels carrying Syrian, Lebanese and even Palestinians approximately 160 kilometres to Cyprus from Tripoli (Bathke, 2021).
In June 2021, the United Nations estimated that over the following months around 300 million USD dollars was needed to provide necessary aid to around 1.5 million Lebanese and 400,000 migrant workers living in the country. Journalists, experts and international humanitarian corporations all agree that a possible solution to the financial crisis falls on the Lebanese government’s implementation of policy reforms that could gradually improve the situation. The possibility of that happening is unlikely as the political class remains reluctant to compromise any of their interests.