© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lebanese Flee Their Own Country Amid Economic Crisis


Lebanon is a small country that hosts many refugees, Palestinians and Syrians, and is struggling through a deep economic and political crisis. Today, the prime minister-designate quit after failing to form a cabinet over the course of a month. And, of course, the capital, Beirut, is still trying to recover from that massive explosion in August. Now there are signs some Lebanese are trying to flee their own country, either by plane or on risky sea crossings.

We're joined now by journalist Nada Homsi, who's been covering this for NPR in Beirut. Nada, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Help us understand what's driving some Lebanese away from their own country now.

HOMSI: Well, people say that they just don't see a viable future here anymore, not for themselves and not for their kids. So the thing is when we talk about an economic crisis in Lebanon, it's really important to understand how this affects Lebanon's population. There's a 37% unemployment rate at least, meaning that even educated people can't find work. And the World Bank says more than half of Lebanon's population has slipped below the poverty line. So that gives you an idea of how badly people are doing. Meanwhile, the currency has lost a lot of its purchasing value and people's salaries are worth less. So the cost of living is really high, and the government's even struggling to provide basic services like 24/7 electricity.

So people are struggling to survive. And after that massive explosion that you mentioned, they feel increasingly unsafe. They don't have any faith in their politicians fixing their country. And a lot of people say they have no other choice but to leave.

SIMON: Nada, do you have any idea how many people might be leaving and how they're trying to get out?

HOMSI: Yeah. It's really hard to reach a number, but international aid groups don't have hard figures so far. But last month, a research firm called Information International (ph) said their records showed that an average of 3,100 people were leaving the country daily, and that was before the massive explosion in the port. So after that, it averaged at around 4,100, and that number is only expected to increase.

And people are leaving however they can. I mean, more and more people are paying smugglers to put them on boats to Cyprus. That's an EU country that's a hundred miles away from Lebanon, so it's very close. And these are mostly poor Lebanese people, and they're joining Syrian refugees who are also really desperate to leave a country that has nothing for them in this economic crisis. People are selling their belongings. They borrow money from people to pay smugglers. And they're hoping for a better life somewhere else.

To give you an idea of the scale of this, in the last three months alone, the U.N. Refugee Agency said that there were 21 recorded attempted sea crossings to Cyprus. Those are only the recorded ones. And in comparison, there was only 17 tries in all of 2019. So it gives you an idea of people's desperation. Of course, people that are more fortunate - they manage to go on student visas, marriage visas, work visas as well.

SIMON: One of the boats that tried to make a sea crossing into Cyprus, I gather, recently had to be rescued. What happened there?

HOMSI: Well, most recently, last week, a boat that was originally packed with 45 people was rescued after it floated at sea for eight days without enough food or water. At least six people died on that boat. Two of them were kids. Eventually, someone that had jumped off the boat to look for help managed to find a boat that belonged to a U.N. agency after he was swimming at sea for almost two days. I spoke with Ziad al Bireh, who is a cousin of one of the families that was on this boat. And he says he tried to discourage them from taking the crossing. But like he says here...

ZIAD AL BIREH: (Speaking Arabic).

HOMSI: ...They had lost hope in everything. And that's how a lot of people are feeling.

SIMON: Nada Homsi in Beirut, thanks so much.

HOMSI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.