BEIRUT: In the wake of the uprisings that shook the Arab world starting in 2011, political unrest and economic hardship across the Middle East and North Africa have left many clamoring to leave the region in search of safety and better opportunities elsewhere.
The US, long known as the land of opportunity, has always been high on the list for aspiring immigrants. Predictably enough, as many as three quarters of respondents to the Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey said they want the next US administration to make it easier for people from Arab countries to travel to the US.
“Many of the young generation of Lebanese want to leave the country today. It feels like history is repeating itself. It’s exactly what happened 36 years ago when I left. Anybody who could afford to leave would leave,” said Rania Matar, a Lebanese-Palestinian photographer currently on a visit to Beirut from Boston.
“However, unless people have American citizenship, the Lebanese and Arabs alike don’t seem as interested in the US as before. They seem more interested in going to Canada or Europe, and perhaps that’s due to the stringent travel restrictions that the US has placed many Arab nations under.”
Indeed, over the past three years it has become increasingly difficult for people from Arab countries to travel to the US, especially after President Donald Trump, who is up for re-election on Nov. 3, imposed sweeping travel bans on people from a number of Muslim-majority countries in 2017.
Executive Order 13769 placed tight restrictions on citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Plaintiffs challenging the order said the move was unconstitutional and broke federal statutes.
As a result, Trump issued Executive Order 13780, which amended some provisions of the first order, including the removal of Iraq from the list.
“Of course, they should ease up restrictions, especially for the younger generation, as they have zero opportunities in this part of the world,” Basel Dalloul, a tech entrepreneur who lives in Beirut, told Arab News.
“The US is still the land of opportunity for people in this part of the world. If you work hard and are tenacious in the US, chances are that you will make it and that’s what the US means to people here.”
For the 18 countries polled by the survey, 75 percent of respondents agreed that the US should make it easier for people from Arab countries to enter. The corresponding figure for Lebanon was even higher, 79 percent.
“The Lebanese are leaving Lebanon in droves,” said Dalloul. “Everyone and anyone who has the means to leave is leaving. The banking system here has collapsed. You can take out only 2 million Lebanese pounds now per week ($270 at the black-market rate). How does a family survive on that when they need to pay for rent, food, electricity and education?”
Lebanon has been rocked by mass anti-government protests since Oct. 2019, which began in response to new taxes. The protests soon escalated into expressions of rage against the entire political establishment.
Matters were made even worse on Aug. 4 when a port fire ignited a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate. The resulting blast devastated the city, leaving 203 dead and 6,500 injured.
The disaster seemed to underscore the perceived corruption and ineptitude of Lebanese officials and compounded public anger. With coronavirus containment measures already squeezing the job market, many young Lebanese have simply had enough.
According to this year’s Arab Youth Survey, two in five young Arabs are thinking about emigrating due to the lack of economic prospects brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, conflict and corruption.
Some 15 percent of 18-24-year-old respondents said they are actively trying to leave.
“There’s not many opportunities for Arab youth in the Middle East now,” said Mohamed Tahir, a Lebanese entrepreneur from Beirut. “It’s not just Lebanese but Arab youth across the region, including the Gulf.”