Lebanese youths seek out a brighter future abroad amid economic, political crises

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Almost three years into Lebanon’s trifecta of economic, social and political crises, Lebanese youths are desperate to move abroad. For them, leaving the country means finding better opportunities for the future. Studies show that this belief is on the rise among youth – and this, in turn, is expected to decrease their level of political involvement and engagement.  

Perla was one year away from graduating with a BS in chemistry from the American University of Beirut when she was accepted into a US university. While accepting the US offer would prolong her education by an extra year, the decision to leave was not hard. In August 2021 she packed her bags and booked a ticket.

“I was willing to do an extra year of studying abroad rather than take the risk of staying in Lebanon and facing the unknown,” she told FRANCE 24. “I would return to Lebanon in a heartbeat if I could, but I plan to go to medical school and the path is long. I would rather start the journey where my future is clearer.”

Perla is one of many Lebanese youths who have either left or are attempting to leave the crisis-hit country. In a study led by Suzanne Menhem, assistant professor and researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the Lebanese University, 75.6 percent of 1,023 Lebanese youths between 18 and 29 reported that they hope to leave Lebanon. Of these, 26.7 percent have, or are in the process of, preparing their immigration papers.

“The crises Lebanon is facing did not only affect the youths,” Menhem told FRANCE 24. “We did see other subgroups of the population – such as doctors, lawyers and academics – also leave the country. However, the high percentage of youths looking to migrate not only threatens particular sectors, but the entire future of Lebanon. The more who leave, the more Lebanon loses its talent pool and the key future players in the decision-making process.”

The data for the study, which is set to be published in an academic journal in the next two months, was collected in March and April of 2021. But Menhem said that if the data were to be collected today the numbers would either be the same or even higher, given that the situation continues to deteriorate.  

According to Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, it has long been common for Lebanese youths to leave after their first degree to build a career abroad. However, he said, this phenomenon is even more common today and it is probably “much truer that [those who are leaving] don’t want to look back”.

“The reasons are clear. The prospects of things getting better were stronger before,” he told FRANCE 24. “Today there is an entrenched impression that the country is doomed – not only politically, but also socially and economically.”

Menhem said 90 percent of those surveyed said the main reason for leaving is the economic crisis followed by 67.5 percent who wanted to leave due to the political crisis. 

Lana, 19, said the main reason she decided to leave was the slim hope for change in the near future.

“I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. I moved back to Lebanon in 2019, right when the problems started,” she said. “My experience in the country went well for the first two months and then everything went downhill. It was then that I realised I wasn’t comfortable living in Lebanon anymore and decided to pursue my BA in the UK.”

The 2019 protests and a decrease in hope

Jana, 24, was among the thousands of young people who participated in the 2019 protests demandingthe resignation of the government, accountability and early elections, among other things. Yet, as the 2022 parliamentary election approaches, Jana is not sure whether she still wants to vote.

“The uprising was a reality, but its promises were an illusion. I always knew Lebanon wasn’t stable, but I never wanted to really leave. Today, I fear not being able to do so,” she said. She has been accepted to pursue a master’s degree abroad and is waiting for her visa to travel in August. “Why would I vote and for whom? Even the alternative groups that saw light as a result of the uprising couldn’t form a unified electoral list for the elections. Corruption is rooted in the system and its people.”

According to Bahout, the excitement and hope that young people and other protesters displayed in 2019 no longer exist today. This, in turn, influences people’s level of political involvement and engagement.

“Some ask why people don’t revolt like they did in 2019, given that the situation today is much worse than it was back then,” Bahout said. “But as long as you’re not stuck in the system [and can leave], you’re not willing to pay a high price to change it.”

In 2021, some 79,134 people left Lebanon, the highest number of migrations the country has witnessed in five years, according to Information International Sal, an independent research and consultancy firm based in Beirut.

“The numbers say that commitment to the country has decreased and that Lebanon is seeing a dearth of skilled labour and young workers,” Bahout said. “In the long run, if we assume that those leaving are from the middle classes, this exodus could deplete democratic institutions and weaken the liberal social order.”

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