Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Financial Meltdown Main Culprit Behind Lebanon Mass Emigration

Lebanon Mass Emigration
A Lebanese physician takes photos as former employees of the American University Medical Center demonstrate outside the hospital in the capital Beirut, on July 20, 2020, after they were dismissed from their jobs. JOSEPH EID / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.


The financial meltdown in Lebanon has put many individuals in precarious living situations. As a result of the depreciation in the currency rate, individuals have not only lost access to their foreign cash and experienced a decrease in their purchasing power, but have also witnessed the collapse of social safety nets and the paralysis of governmental institutions.

Significant demographic shifts were among the collapse’s catastrophic repercussions, which extended beyond livelihoods. The country’s social makeup and structure, as well as on factors that would be crucial to its future economic growth, have also been impacted.

When expressing concerns about sectarian balances or challenges connected to the presence of refugees, Lebanese authorities usually allude to demographic shifts. However, when other variables, notably mass emigration, are included, the presence of refugees pales in comparison.

The median age, proportion of individuals competent to work and contribute to the production cycle, and the number of employees in key sectors such as medical, nursing, engineering, education, and others are all impacted by mass emigration waves.

Given the importance of these industries, the decline in the number of skilled workers may have disastrous consequences. Additionally, the country is seeing a rise in reverse migration – from cities to the countryside – a practice that reflects the rise in poverty rates and families’ no longer being able to afford cities.

Lebanese emigration is a historical phenomenon

Emigration from Lebanon in search of better employment possibilities is not a new phenomenon that emerged with the financial crisis. Figures show that 1.5 million Lebanese left the country between 1975 and 2011, compared to the current population of 6.7 million, as a result of consecutive waves of emigration.

While the Civil War and its related upheaval and atrocities triggered several waves of forced relocation between 1975 and 1990, high unemployment rates and reliance on non-productive rentier industries led to the phenomenon’s persistence in the years following the war’s end.

Prior to the 2019 financial meltdown, one of the cornerstones of the country’s economic strategy was the so-called “brain drain,” or the exodus of competent individuals. Lebanon’s rentier and unproductive local economy had historically relied on expatriate remittances to secure the hard currency needed to perpetuate this system. In reality, records show that remittances contributed up to 25% of GDP at several intervals.

These transfers drove the banking sector’s development, allowing it to continue lending to the state and the Central Bank to cover the public budget deficit and stabilize the Lebanese pound. Expatriate deposits thus contributed to fueling the inflation of the banking sector, which subsequently collapsed and squandered the money of its depositors, including those of expatriates.

For all of these reasons, Lebanon has long been primed for new waves of emigration in the aftermath of the 2019 financial catastrophe. The majority of Lebanese have family who have lived overseas for a long period, which has assisted many in finding work and settling abroad.

Furthermore, many Lebanese families hold dual nationalities as a result of prior generations living in diaspora nations. This advantage aided many in this category in relocating rapidly to diaspora nations in order to escape the Lebanese economic crisis.

The waves of emigration after the financial crisis

The flood of emigration that occurred during the commencement of the 2019 financial crisis was unprecedented. Rather, the departure caused by the crisis during the last three years was the greatest wave of migration seen in Lebanon’s history.

According to a Gallup poll conducted after the crisis, 63 per cent of Lebanese respondents expressed a willingness to leave the country as soon as they were able to do so, compared to 19 to 23 per cent in the years preceding the financial collapse. According to this poll, Canada represented the preferred destination for nearly 28 per cent of respondents, followed by Germany with nearly 19 per cent.

Over 79,000 people have fled Lebanon in the last year alone, with over 117,000 leaving in the previous three years, according to figures. For the first time in its history, Lebanon’s population has decreased dramatically, from roughly 6.9 million in 2019 to around 6.6 million now.

The actual crisis reflected by these figures is found not only in the quantity of persons lost as a result of the crisis, but also in the quality of this outflow. In actuality, the majority of emigrants are talented and experienced young people who have been able to locate work possibilities overseas. As a result of the recent wave of emigration, the country has lost a considerable share of its skilled labor force.

This force was expected to assist Lebanon’s financial recovery in the next years by aiding in the creation of productive sectors capable of restoring the local economy. Furthermore, this issue will contribute to the aging of Lebanese society, a trend aggravated by a growing number of young people’s inability to marry due to financial constraints.

Migration hits critical sectors

Another concern prompted by the emigration wave is a decrease in the number of workers in critical sectors. Figures show that approximately 20 per cent of doctors have left the country in 2021 in search of better opportunities elsewhere. This issue comes on the backdrop of financial challenges facing hospitals in Lebanon, many of which can no longer afford to fairly compensate physicians they employ compared to earnings elsewhere, especially in light of the salary increases that came in light of Covid-19 pandemic.

According to Sharaf Abu Sharaf, the chairman of the Lebanese Order of Physicians, around 2,500 physicians have lately departed Lebanon, the majority of them are highly skilled medical experts, posing a challenge to the whole medical industry and threatening its survival.

The exodus of workers in critical sectors is not restricted to doctors, but also includes nurses, who complement the work of doctors in the health sector. As with physicians, the increased demand for nurses and high wages provided overseas, as opposed to the reduction in the value of their salary in Lebanon as a result of the financial crisis, caused many to leave.

According to the Nurses Syndicate, over 1,600 male and female professionals in this sector departed Lebanon within a year of the crisis, resulting in a serious shortage of nursing personnel in Lebanese hospitals.

Meanwhile, on the engineering front, Engineers Syndicate figures indicate that more than half of the 72,000 registered engineers in the union are abroad today. This change was exacerbated by a variety of circumstances, most notably the relocation of numerous engineering consulting firms and their personnel abroad owing to poor financial and monetary conditions in Lebanon.

This development creates a risk for Lebanon since it deprives the nation of engineers who would play a significant part in the future revival of productive sectors, such as those dealing with developing infrastructure, industrial operations, and so on.

In regards to the academic sector, American University of Beirut (AUB) figures indicate that about 12 per cent of university professors left the country in the initial years following the financial crisis.

This came about as a result of the decline in the value of their salaries in local currency, as well as due to the high demand for professors with qualifications and experience at universities abroad. Consequently, due to dearth of qualified professors, many Lebanese universities have been forced to curtail the number of majors they offer their student.

Reverse internal migration toward the countryside

The demographic shifts have not been restricted to job losses in essential industries or a decrease in the number of young people in Lebanon’s society. Instead, there is a rise in reverse internal migration, with people departing cities for the countryside as a result of record-high inflation rates and Lebanese families’ inability to sustain city life. Numerous families have relocated to the countryside in search of methods to reduce living costs, which, according to UN estimates, are roughly 30% lower than in Beirut.

Available figures indicate that about 77,000 people have recently relocated from cities to rural areas. The presence of civil and familial support networks in the countryside has supported such a phenomena, as well as the low cost of housing.

Another issue has been that a big number of families residing in cities are of rural background, allowing this group to return to the villages and profit from their extended family’s assets.

Migration to the countryside is a positive phenomenon if it is accompanied by economic development that supports the establishment of new job opportunities and the expansion of the agricultural sector. Typically, such reverse displacement aids in reducing city congestion and achieving balanced growth in outlying areas.

However, this migration has not been matched by an increase in agricultural or productive activity in rural regions. There are considerable fears that this phenomena will put pressure on rural regions rather than help them flourish.

Issues such as restoring a skilled and productive workforce, re-attracting emigrants working in critical sectors, and creating jobs must be among the primary objectives in any path toward Lebanon’s financial recovery.

Fanack Water Palestine