BEIRUT: A lack of domestic opportunity is pushing many young Lebanese to consider emigration, and more and more of the country’s brightest young minds are moving abroad in search of jobs – and wages – commensurate with their skills.
“My family invested $110,000 in my education to become a doctor, but after graduation my monthly salary here was $660 the first year and only rose to $1,000 after that,” Karlos Ajami, 31, told The Daily Star. After years of trying, he finally succeeded in getting a job in a German hospital and the necessary papers to accept the offer.
Ajami is one of a generation of Lebanese between the ages of 20 to 35 who feel that the employment opportunities in Lebanon are slim and that the return on investment in education is not sustainable. Statistics by Information International, an independent Beirut-based think tank, suggest that in 2015 around 34 percent of young Lebanese wanted to leave the country.
The Observatory for Socio-Economics at the Université Saint-Joseph found that since 1992 more than 500,000 people have left the country and that in the overwhelming majority of cases it was the children of the household who emigrated. Statistics from Lebanon’s Central Administration for Statistics in 2011 confirm that 77 percent of Lebanese emigrants are below the age of 35 and show that most leave to other Arab states, where salaries are higher, or to Europe and the United States. The various statistics suggest that more than 50 percent of young people are either opting for emigration or are already living abroad, a researcher at Information International said in a recent interview.
There are countless bureaucratic obstacles and the financial cost of emigrating is very high, but for many the prospect of a more prosperous and stable future is worth it, Abou Ahmad, 65, told The Daily Star. The father of five sold his taxi license and his car in order to finance a dangerous boat journey to Australia for three of his children. All had tried to find a stable and sufficient sources of income for years without success, despite having undergone training in business and cosmetics. Having spent weeks in one of Australia’s infamous immigration detention centers, they are now starting to build a life in Sydney. “I am counting the days, actually the years,” he chuckled with a sad smile, “until they get their residency and I can come live with them.”
Due to his age and deteriorating health, Abou Ahmad risked never seeing three of his children again when he supported their plans to emigrate. The price some families pay for emigration is even higher. Last year, seven members of a Lebanese family drowned on their way to Europe, but many more are willing to attempt the journey. Lebanese authorities have recorded several cases of boats smuggling asylum-seekers from Tripoli’s fishing port over the past few months.
These migration trends reflect the dire economic situation in Lebanon. According to Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi, unemployment has reached the unprecedented level of 25 percent, and among young people the rate is even higher. In addition, the cost of living is extremely high relative to the average salary. The CAS published a report in 2011 saying that 66 percent had emigrated for the purpose of looking for a job, and that 48 percent of emigrants had no job before migration. More than 40 percent held university degrees.
“I am the same person here as I am there, but I earn three times as much in Saudi Arabia than I would if I stayed in Lebanon,” said Lebanese engineer Abdul-Rahman Chamaa, 27. His real dream is to go to Germany to pursue highly specialized and qualitative engineering studies, and working in Saudi Arabia for two years is his only chance to finance it.
Germany is a very desirable destination for young, educated Lebanese. Tuition fees are extremely low compared to Lebanon, and Germany is an industrial nation with a demand for highly skilled labor, said Sabine Haupt from the Goethe-Institut in Beirut. For the past six years, all those learning German at the institute have been highly educated Lebanese and Syrian university students, who sign up with the objective of attaining the required language level to move to Germany.
In an effort to stop the brain drain in Lebanon, last year Azzi announced that the Labor Ministry would reduce the number of work permits issued to foreigners by 49 percent in the framework of a “Lebanese first” policy. However, the difficult economic situation will need more diverse and radical measures to give young Lebanese more opportunities in Lebanon.