• Social Issues
    Feb 15, 2024

    Leaving Lebanon: A Panacea After the Financial Collapse?

    • Tamirace Fakhoury
    Leaving Lebanon: A Panacea After the Financial Collapse?

    Social scientists have spilled much ink on ‘stuckedness’ in prisons, refugee camps, or ghettos.[1] Yet how about ‘stuckedness’ in states where people can no longer provide to their basic needs and lead dignified lives? Is flight the solution? Or do crises provide opportunities for new beginnings?


    ‘Stuckedness,’ refuge, and displacement

    In World War II, many struggled to exit totalitarian and predatory European states that stifled freedom of thought and expression. With the end of the war in 1945, states agreed on the necessity to define the legal protection, rights, and assistance that people fleeing persecution and seeking refuge are entitled to receive. This period saw the establishment of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees, considered as the cornerstone of today’s international refugee regime. The convention seeks to protect persons fleeing political and other forms of persecution. It asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country which poses threats to their freedom or life.


    Since the adoption of the 1951 convention and its 1967 protocol, many analysts have debated the importance of widening the definition of being a refugee or rethinking policy perspectives on sedentariness and mobility.[2] They have also reflected on the multilayered conditions that prompt individuals to flee.


    In our current international system, various forms of state fragility and violence have proliferated. Scholars studying the phenomenon of displacement grapple with an important albeit unsettled debate: What happens when individuals seek to flee nation-states that are not necessarily totalitarian, but that face extreme and acute forms of political and economic fragility? In such states, governments may be either unable to provide to their citizens’ basic needs or the political regime may be so inept and corrupt that it induces ongoing crises. Cases in point are Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Haiti, and Lebanon.


    Citizens who flee such states do not necessarily fit the definition of a refugee in the 1951 Convention, as they are not fleeing persecution. At the same time, many of them seek refuge elsewhere in light of a confluence of factors, ranging from conflicts, financial collapse, instability, and turmoil. In this instance, people’s levels of desperation beg the question as to whether the bond between the state and citizens has been irrevocably disrupted, prompting these citizens to claim protection and livelihoods across international borders.


    Such hotbed debates, though inconclusive in both academic and policy debates, touch on fundamental questions: How to define notions of refuge, migration, and mobility? And how should policymakers, international organizations, and humanitarian actors make sense of the desire to flee in situations characterized by “the absence of state protection of the citizen’s basic needs”?[3]


    This reflection piece does not seek to answer such complex questions. Rather it draws on the example of Lebanon to probe into the dilemma of staying or leaving in the context of states that—by severing the minimal bond of providing to their citizens’ basic needs—no longer offer temporalities of hope. In so doing, this article joins the vibrant scholarly debate on displacement as “processual disruption to people’s lives that begins in place, preceding the potential outcome of forced migration.”[4]


    A harrowing financial meltdown

    Lebanon, a country that has recently been torn by concomitant crises ranging from nation-wide corruption, a harrowing financial crash, and the 2020 Beirut port explosion (described as the biggest non-nuclear blast ever recorded in history) has seen its citizenry grapple with the dilemma of to stay or to leave. Various articles, polls, and surveys report that Lebanese express a strong wish to leave the country in which they feel unhappy, destitute, and hopeless.[5]


    Although Lebanon’s recent financial meltdown has far-reaching roots, people only confronted its shattering consequences towards the end of summer 2019. Within a few days, people realized that their money had become a fictional number on a digital bank application. In October that year, a proposed WhatsApp tax triggered nation-wide protests. The tax represented a symbolic trigger that revealed deep-seated dissatisfaction with Lebanon’s politics of sectarianism, which has built a tentacular infrastructure of corruption and clientelism: [6] Analysts commonly refer to this infrastructure of corruption as the “Ponzi scheme,” which saw political elites, governmental institutions such as the Banque du Liban (BDL), and private banks collude in robbing national resources.


    The 2019 October uprising has been life changing. In the first months of the uprising, people have voiced in unison their disaffection with the so-called muhassassa (sectarian quota) system. Artists, novelists, students, lawyers, feminist, LGBTQ, and migrant organizations have come together, reclaiming a country that has been hollowed out of its institutions and resources.


    In the context of concomitant crises, the protest wave—though it left an unforgettable legacy—fizzled out.  Indeed, in the last years, with the deterioration of livelihoods, the erosion of safety nets, in addition to waves of arbitrary dismissals from work, protesting became a luxury. By July 2020, people’s purchasing power and salaries had lost more than 80 percent of their value. Inflation soared by then. As banks banned depositors from accessing their money, people have deplored the loss of their lifetime savings. Aborted attempts at dethroning the sectarian leaders have left many activists with a sense of burnout. [7]


    Following the Beirut blast, the state has gradually stopped subsidizing fuel, medicine, and bread. Impoverishment and destitution have been in store for many people. By 2021, many distinguished academics had either taken a leave or left their institutions that could not keep up at the time with the soaring inflation, dwindling student enrolment rates, and liquidity shortage.


    In the context of political bickering, ruling incumbents failed to agree on a financial rescue plan. Today, Lebanon is about to enter its fifth year into a vertiginous financial collapse, which pushed about 80 percent of people into poverty.[8] Due to the lack of national solutions, restaurants, shops, and businesses started adopting the US dollar as their everyday currency, making the Lebanese lira a relic of the past. With the inevitable ascent of a dollarized economy, people who still earn their salary in the local currency have been struggling with new forms of poverty. According to Lebanese economists, with “three poor people out of every five residents of Lebanon,” the emergency of the situation has become unquestionable.[9]


    Needless to add that people’s economic precarity is exacerbated by mutually reinforcing governance crises. Examples are the obstructed investigation into the Beirut port explosion and a quasi-total stasis in governmental institutions.


    New scenarios and forms of migration?

    In this context, Lebanese nationals have entertained the idea of emigration. Others have had to emigrate by necessity to the Gulf, France, Canada, or further afield. Skilled workers, such as IT specialists, nurses, doctors, and academics were able in some cases to land new jobs abroad. Others with fewer resources decided to embark on perilous trips. Polls and reports have revealed that since 2020 a worrisome new trend has emerged: irregular migration by deadly sea routes.[10] So how are we to make sense of people’s migratory plans and aspirations to leave?


    Emigration in Lebanon has a long history dating back to the 18th century. People have explored new horizons and continents in light of two factors: the search for new economic opportunities and flight from strife and conflicts. The current financial collapse and concomitant governance crises have undoubtedly spurred a new emigration wave.[11] What is however worth noting is that the very act of crossing borders is not necessarily merely physical, but also mental and psychological. People feel displaced from their everyday lives and futures.


    In the wake of the financial crash, many have spent countless hours contemplating scenarios of departure.[12] Scenarios of joining distant relatives in affluent societies of the Global North, applying for a job in Dubai, or going on a student visa have abounded in people’s imagination.


    Brooding on leaving, however, is one thing and landing a family relocation, a talent visa, or a Green Card is another. With tighter international visa regimes, applying for an emigration visa is an extremely expensive and complex procedure. The application involves a heavily bureaucratized procedure that entails providing diplomas, qualifications, credentials, and submitting proof of subsistence.  


    Seeking to leave the country has not only been on the minds of Lebanese citizens. The small country hosts about 2 million Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees who feel stuck and unable to decide on their life choices as the economy spirals into doom. Many of the Syrian and Iraqi refugees, who were hoping to apply for resettlement or relocation, have seen their plans come to a halt with COVID-19 border closures and delayed applications. Though we no longer live in a pandemic world, resettlement numbers for refugees in Lebanon remain low.


    Perilous trips and complex aspirations

    Against this backdrop, as underscored, people have embarked on perilous trips, turning scenarios of flight into reality. In the hope of reaching Italy or Cyprus, people have taken boats in the Mediterranean, considered to be one of the deadliest seas in terms of maritime migration routes.[13]


    Between 2020 and 2022, it is reported that both a growing number of Syrian and Lebanese nationals took boat trips, facilitated by human trafficking networks. In 2022, more than 4,000 people sought to leave the country through irregular routes in comparison to 1,570 in 2021, 794 in 2020 and 270 in 2019.It is estimated that 26 per cent of the people who were attempting to leave were Lebanese nationals.[14]


    In addition to the maritime route, the UNHCR reported that many Lebanese attempted to leave with a visa to a third country that would allow them to get closer to the European Union. [15] How recurrent and significant are these trends and will flight become an established way of coping with the financial collapse are questions that cannot be easily answered given the lack of reliable data. What these migration trends and aspirations, however, reveal is an important malaise, prompting people to reimagine their lives away and ‘somewhere else.’


    Agency in staying?

    Departure may be a top concern in people’s minds. Yet, restrictive visa regimes, tougher migration policies, the rise of the far-right in the West, and devastated economies reeling from the effects of COVID-19 make it difficult for many to leave. In this landscape, the desire to leave/escape/reinvent oneself in a different ‘timescape’ reflects complex psychological realities: how to make sense of one’s past, present, and future when time seems to stand still, and opportunities seem out of reach?


    Notwithstanding this malaise, waiting while brooding on the dilemma of staying or leaving has unlocked a new chapter for many. Activists, entrepreneurs, students, and displaced individuals have transformed a seemingly stagnant present into a gateway for creative beginnings. Olive harvests, wine making, establishing an online magazine, opening a new bar in previously blast-torn Mar Mikhail, writing a book, renovating a run-down house in the mountains, volunteering in a local NGO, doing creative writing courses, or preparing to set up alternative syndicates and trade unions are some of the creative solutions that my interlocutors have turned to.


    Academics and intellectuals have drawn on this inflection point as an opportunity to reflect on their positionality, invoking “writing” as a therapeutic trope for reclaiming the future.[16] Even if many ended up leaving, they have not severed their bond with their community. They still participate in Lebanon’s economic and cultural life through a myriad of ways: curating art initiatives, blogging, partnering with locals to develop economic rescue plans, or lobbying their representatives abroad to bring Lebanon’s decrepit leadership to justice. 


    In this context, as Sophie Chamas reminds us: At times, we may choose to “stay with the trouble,”[17] united in our “brokenness,” but keen on forging a collective commitment to a longer-term political project.[18]




    [1] Andrew M. Jefferson and Lotte Buch Segal. 2019. “The Confines of Time – On the Ebbing Away of Futures in Sierra Leone and Palestine”, Ethnos, 84:1, 96-112.

    [2] Andrew Shacknove, E. 1985. “Who Is a Refugee?” Ethics 95, 2: 274–84; Paula Hoffmeyer-Zlotnik. 2023. “Perspectives of Flow and Place: Rethinking Notions of Migration and Mobility in Policy-Making, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2023.2278400

    [3] Shacknove. “Who Is a Refugee?” 

    [4] Ali Ali. 2023. “Displacement in Place and the Financial Crisis in Lebanon”, Journal of Refugee Studies,  https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/fead076

    [5] Gallup, “Leaving Lebanon: Crisis Has Most People Looking for Exit”, https://news.gallup.com/poll/357743/leaving-lebanon-crisis-people-looking-exit.aspx

    [6] John Nagle and Tamirace Fakhoury. 2022. Resisting Sectarianism: Queer Activism in Post-War Lebanon. Zed Books.

    [7] Carmen Geha, 2024. “Activists Escaping Lebanon: Disruption, Burnout, and Disengagement”. In: Zapata-Barrero, R., Awad, I. (eds.) Migrations in the Mediterranean. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-42264-5_10

    [9] Paul Makdissi ,Walid Marrouch and Myra Yazbeck. 2023. “Measuring Poverty in Lebanon in the Time of Economic Collapse”, ERF Forum, https://theforum.erf.org.eg/2023/03/28/measuring-poverty-in-lebanon-in-the-time-of-economic-collapse/

    [11] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2023: Lebanon, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2023/country-chapters/lebanon#:~:text=Lebanon%20entered%20the%20fourth%20year,of%20the%20population%20into%20poverty.

    [12] Timour Azhari, “Plotting our Escape”, Al Jazeera, July 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2020/07/01/plotting-our-escape-lebanon-braces-for-new-emigration-wave/  

    [13] Ansa, "Lebanese Flee to Italy as 'there is no hope here'", Info Migrants, August 2023, https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/51198/lebanese-flee-to-italy-as-there-is-no-hope-here

    [14] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2023: Lebanon, 15.

    [15] Ibid.

    [16] Sleiman El Hajj. 2021. “Illness Writing and Revolution, Converging Narratives: The Year in Lebanon.” Biography, 44: 98-105. 

    [17] Donna Haraway quoted in Sophie Chamas. 2023. Researching Activism in “Dead Time”: Counter-politics and the Temporality of Failure in Lebanon. World Humanities Report, CHCI, 11. 

    [18] Chamas. 2020.  'Reading Marx in Beirut: Disorganised Study and the Politics of Queer Utopia.' Middle East: Topics and Arguments, 14: 143-159. eprints.soas.ac.uk/37923/

    Tamirace Fakhoury is Associate Professor of International Politics and Conflict at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is also an LCPS Senior Fellow and a visiting professor at Sciences Po, where she was the visiting Kuwait Chair (2020-2022). Previously, Tamirace was an Associate Professor at Aalborg University in its Copenhagen Campus in Denmark. Prior to this, she was based at the Lebanese American University (LAU), where she was the Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution (ISJCR). Her core research areas are the global governance of conflicts and conflict spillovers, power-sharing and social movements in post-conflict societies, migration and refugee governance, and the European Union’s external policy in the Mediterranean. This piece is inspired by her writing project on time and politics in post-war Lebanon in the context of the Carlsberg Monograph Fellowship.
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