BEIRUT, 10 June 2007 (IRIN) - Researchers warn that economic instability and persistent security threats are driving ever more young, educated Lebanese abroad, creating a brain drain that threatens the country's economic and social future.
"We're suffering a huge brain drain," Kamal Hamdan, head of the Lebanese Centre of Research and Studies, told IRIN.
"Those who have the brains take their diplomas and leave. They are the young people who would go on to be middle executives and entrepreneurs. In the long term, their absence means we may face a serious shortage of policy developers and managers."
A poll published in April conducted by Information International, an independent Beirut-based research centre, found that 30 percent of Lebanese - nearly one in three people - wanted to emigrate abroad, and 60 percent in the 18-25 age bracket. The poll also found that nearly 12 percent of undergraduates want to emigrate, along with over 15 percent of professionals.
However, economist Elie Yachoui, board member of the National Council of Scientific Research in Lebanon, estimated that over the past two years more than 50 percent of graduates had left Lebanon.
The survey polled 997 Lebanese citizens of varying ages and creeds from across the country in February. Nearly half of all Maronites, the largest Christian denomination in the country, said they were considering emigrating, while some 22 percent of Shias and 26 percent of Sunnis say they are considering moving abroad.
Lebanon is home to just under four million citizens, but some 16 million people of Lebanese descent live abroad, the largest communities being in South America, West Africa, the USA, Canada and Australia.
Abdo Asmar is 24, and has been trying to leave Lebanon for years, without any success. He has found work as a security guard for a private company, in what he says is "a flourishing career in Lebanon, given the circumstances".
Lebanon has been plagued by a recently re-emerged campaign of bombings, as well as political assassinations, since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
Recently Asmar received a job offer that would finally allow him to leave. But it's not the destination he was hoping for.
"I received a job offer to work as a security officer in the Green Zone in Baghdad, for 10 times the salary I'm paid now," he said. "Why would I bother to stay? If I'm going to die anyway, I'd rather die rich."
Hadi Sabaa, 27, is equally pessimistic about the future of his country, even though he has a steady job on a local newspaper. Like many other journalism graduates, he's trying to leave for Dubai, "where reporters are appreciated, respected, and decently paid". "There at least," he said, "I will not have to worry about where my children are at the time of the next explosion."
Political sensitivities are hampering efforts to record data on actual numbers of émigrés.
No official census has been taken since 1932, for fear of upsetting the delicate power-sharing agreement between Lebanon's rival sects.
"We haven't been allowed to conduct serious research for over 16 years now, because in Lebanon, this subject is taboo, due to official fear of revealing the new confessional and religious make-up of the population," said Hamdan, whose own three children have left and have no plans to return.
Hamdan accused successive governments of "deliberately neglecting the need for an organised database, so that we don't know who left and who came back".
The money trail
The minimum state wage in Lebanon is less than US$300 per month and has not changed since 1996.
A report issued by the World Bank in May 2007 found nearly 26 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), worth around $5.6 billion, comes from emigrants, based on a calculation of the balance of payments for 2006.
The report also showed 45 percent of these transactions come from the 400,000 Lebanese residing in Gulf States, in particular those living in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Economist Elie Yachoui, blamed the high rates of brain drain on "bad policies undertaken by successive governments, which failed to produce economic growth as the public debt skyrocketed".
He told IRIN that, in addition to the current deteriorating security, the country's huge indebtedness also stands in the way of achieving economic growth.
According to estimates, Lebanon's public debt in 2006 stood at just over $40 billion, at the higher estimates, the equivalent of 209 percent of GDP, one of the highest debt burdens in the world.
Billions of dollars pledged to Lebanon at the Paris III international donor conference in January will go simply to service pubic debt repayments, and they have mostly yet to be approved because of the current political stalemate that has seen parliament closed all year.
"Lebanon has three sources of revenue," said Yachoui. "One is natural, the second monetary, and the third - the most important- is our human resources. When this disappears, we lose the capability of managing the first two."
For some, though, even successful economic reforms and a better salary would not entice them to stay.
"I don't care if they fix the situation now or ever," said journalist Hadi Sabaa. "What good will economic reform do me if on my way to buy some bread a car bomb blows me away?"