A massive explosion at the Port of Beirut accelerated the country's economic freefall, exposing severe negligence and corruption among the political class.
Workforce diaspora compounds Lebanon’s woes as overseas jobs lure away urgently needed staff
By Lori Youmshajekian
Sydney- M E Times Int'l: A massive explosion at the Port of Beirut last year has served to accelerate Lebanon’s economic freefall, exposing severe negligence and corruption among the political class.
It also accelerated the migration of the country’s brightest and youngest, on its own a bad enough crisis without political, health or economic crises to worry about
At the start of 2021, Elena Eassey withdrew from university halfway through her course, packed up her belongings and start a new life in a country she had never been to: Australia.
It was the “unbearable” financial and social issues that drove the 22-year-old to leave Lebanon despite her love of the country.
“The cherry on top was when the explosion (at Beirut Port) happened,” she said.
“It (caused) an economic collapse, people are trying to survive, the prices are rising, everything.
“There’s riots on the streets. There’s a revolution happening. They’re burning tires.
“I knew it was the best choice because there was really no hope in the future.”
The tragedy that is happening alongside the country’s once-in-a-century economic meltdown is the exodus of its best and brightest.
Encouraged to leave by her parents, Elena and sister Christelle arrived at a cousin’s home in the Sydney suburb of Croydon Park on Christmas Day.
Two women smile for the camera while standing by a railing in front of t
he Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Christelle described her shock when she first arrived and could not fathom spending $10 on nail polish, worth about one week’s minimum wage back home.
“I was like, ‘Oh that’s too much, that’s way too much’. It was very hard to adjust,” she said.
Elena and Christelle are not alone. Unlike their parents, Lebanon’s younger generation is not fleeing bombs, but an economy in a tailspin.
The job market has sharply contracted with the World Bank estimating one in five people have lost their jobs since October 2019, leaving students in the country with little to look forward to.
Having an Australian passport by descent made the sisters’ move easier but others are not as lucky, according to the acting Lebanon program director at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, Christophe Abi-Nassif.
“The people who are staying cannot leave because they just don’t have access to the right opportunities or don’t want to leave because, sometimes, there’s a personal thing, like family or a partner,” Mr Abi-Nassif said.
“The human infrastructure of the country is effectively disintegrating … the problem is that this very often ends up taking place slowly and gradually.”
Highly skilled professionals — doctors, engineers, business owners — are often the first casualties of economic crises like Lebanon’s, and the trend is worrying.
The shortfall of skilled labour is being felt most acutely in the health care sector, with the World Health Organization sounding the alarm on the “devastating” impact of a mass exodus of medical professionals.
“Nurses are leaving, doctors are leaving,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus said.
“That is very serious. Its impact will last for many years to come.”
WHO estimated 2000 doctors and 1500 registered nurses have already left the country.
Dr Myrna Doumit speaks into a microphone in a white room.
Dr Myrna Doumit, an associate professor of nursing at the Lebanese American University, said private hospitals across Beirut began to reduce nurse’s salaries last year, and forced staff to quarantine at their own expense if they contracted COVID-19.
“They all want to leave the country, unfortunately,” Dr Doumit said.
“The working conditions are not there and, most seriously, they lost trust in hospitals because they failed them.”
Even newly graduated nurses do not want to accept job offers; hundreds of nurses are making their way to nearby Gulf states, lured by market-rate salaries and better working conditions, according to Dr Doumit.
“Because of the loss of experienced staff, they were putting more patient load on the remaining staff than what a human being can really take, like 15 to 20 patients per nurse, and this is extremely dangerous,” she said.
Dr Walid Ahmar looks at the camera while wearing a suit and t
ie in a passport-style photo.
Dr Walid Ahmar — a Melbourne cardiologist who heads the Lebanese Australian Medical Association — said he receives dozens of emails from doctors in Lebanon desperate to secure work abroad.
“The whole situation in Lebanon is an absolute mess,” Dr Ahmar said.
“You have people ringing us or sending me emails saying, ‘Please, can you help us get to either Australia or anywhere in the world’.
“I just say, ‘It’s not that simple. You have to go through the whole (accreditation) process all over again’.”
Dr Ahmar said medical professionals have “had enough” and do not see a future in Lebanon.
“It’s very pessimistic and very depressing,” Dr Ahmar said.
“You’re losing experience and, all of a sudden, you get a rookie [who] comes in. They don’t have that guidance to nurture them.”
Lebanon’s “brain drain” is a slow, insidious symptom of its deep economic depression.
Almost three-quarters of the population is living in poverty, according to a recent report from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.
Most people are paid in the local currency in Lebanon, where the national minimum wage is about 675,000 Lebanese pounds.
A man's hands peel through US dollar bank notes on a table,
with stacks of international currencies below"
At the official exchange rate, that’s worth just over $600 but, in reality, it barely amounts to $40 on the black market, which is the only way many Lebanese can access cash in dollars.
The Crisis Observatory Centre at the American University of Beirut — which tracks the impact of Lebanon’s economic crisis — has dubbed the emigration phenomenon a “third exodus”.
Lebanon’s history is full of crises that have forced people to flee.
The first major exodus was after World War I, in the early 20th century, and the second, during Lebanon’s prolonged civil war in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As a result, the country’s diaspora is up to three times the population of 6 million, according to some estimates.
The observatory’s program co-ordinator, Ola Sidani, said this time all signs are pointing to a huge brain drain.
“War prompts people to leave to safer places but now we don’t have a war with weapons, it is an economic war,” Ms Sidani said.
While the data for this third wave of emigration is being collated, the first two waves saw more than a million people leave.
“I think this immigration is irreversible,” Ms Sidani said.
Karl Ghosn, 20, is relieved he applied to study in Melbourne last June.
“I feel like life would have been a lot more difficult than it is for me now,” he said.
“With the lines at the petrol station, the dollar changing, and the price of everything going up, it would have been very, very hard to live there.”
Passengers walk with their luggage at Beirut international airport in Beirut
He’s left behind a broken homeland and a political system brought to its knees.
The World Bank estimates it could take up to 19 years for the county to recover from this economic meltdown.
Many young people don’t see a reason to establish themselves in a country where they fear disappointment.
“It’s going to take a really long time,” Mr Ghosn said. “I like to keep hope, because I really want to go back home at some point, but it’s not going to happen soon.”