More and more Lebanese citizens are trying to emigrate to Europe and elsewhere amid an unprecedented socio-economic crisis – one of the worst financial crises in the world since the mid-19th century, according to the World Bank. 

The United Nation’s refugee agency estimates that some 1,570 individuals tried to illegally leave Lebanon between January and November 2021. The majority of the migrants had hopes of reaching Cyprus, a European Union member state island located some 100 miles from Lebanon. 

From there, the hope is to reach mainland Europe. 

While the number of people leaving Lebanon for the European Union is currently quite low, the increase reflects the widespread despair in Lebanese society and has the potential to quickly bring a major migration wave crisis on Europe’s doorstep. 

The 42-year-old trafficker “Ibrahim,” which is not his real name, said he has so far smuggled hundreds of Lebanese citizens to Europe since 2019.

“If I didn’t work in this profession, I would have left, just like so many other people,” Ibrahim told AFP. “I get them out of here, out of this beggar’s life. At least if they are put in a camp, they can eat and drink with dignity.”

Ibrahim said he focuses on smuggling his fellow countrymen.

“I get requests from Palestinians and Syrians but I am responsible only for my own countrymen. There are many Lebanese who want to leave… They are ready to sell their houses, sell their cars, sell everything, just to make it out,” Ibrahim said. 

While many in Lebanon dream of a better life in Europe, exorbitant prices for being smuggled out of the country are often beyond the financial means for average Lebanese citizens. A boat trip to Cyprus can cost $2,500 per person while getting to Italy in mainland Europe can cost up to $7,000. 

Bilal Moussa ,who failed once to reach Europe, sees no future in Lebanon and will keep trying to leave.

“There is no future here, not for us and not for our children,” said Moussa, who used to work in a supermarket and could not subsist on his monthly salary of $55. 

Prior to the civil war in the mid-1970s, Lebanon was one of the most prosperous countries in the Middle East. However, decades of civil war and foreign interventions by PLO, Syria and Iran, has left the country destitute and divided. 

The Lebanese currency has lost more than 90% of its value since 2019 compared to the U.S. dollar. This has led to a collapse of Lebanese purchasing power and a monthly minimum wage in Lebanon is currently worth around $22.

Abdel-Rahman Shaar, a computer storeowner in Beirut, paints a bleak picture of Lebanon. 

“You would like to believe that you can be hopeful, but there is no hope. People are dying of hunger, the state is in a coma and the dollar (exchange rate) is crashing,” Shaar said. 

The large Lebanese expat community in the world is believed to exceed Lebanon’s current approximately 6.5 million residents. There are particularly large and successful Lebanese communities living in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and the United States. 

Famous people of Lebanese descent include the Canadian singer Paul Anka, the Colombian pop singer Shakira, the Mexican-U.S. actress Salma Hayek, the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim while the late Apple founder Steve Jobs was of neighbouring Syrian descent. The large-scale emigration has caused a considerable brain drain for Lebanon since the emigrants are disproportionally educated middle class people. 

Meanwhile, France says the United Arab Emirates will join the French-Saudi fund earmarked to alleviate the economic crisis in Lebanon. Following a diplomatic crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia after a former Lebanese Information Minister had criticized the Saudi-led military coalition against the Houthis in Yemen, France has actively brokered conciliation between Riyadh and Beirut. In December, the French and the Saudis decided to setting up a fund for humanitarian assistance to Lebanon. 

Speaking at a parliamentary hearing, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian stressed the importance of the visit of the French President Emmanuel Macron to the Middle East. 

“The visit by President Macron enabled the Gulf (Arab countries) to renew ties, which saw (the creation of) a joint Franco-Saudi fund to support the Lebanese, which will be helped tomorrow or the day after with a contribution from the United Arab Emirates,” stated the French foreign minister. 

Following the World War I, Lebanon came under French administration. In 1944, Lebanon formally became independent from Paris, but has retained close cultural and economic relations with France.

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