From the November-December 2022 issue of News & Letters
by Eugene Walker
A rash of attempted bank robberies has been occurring in Lebanon, so much so that many banks are remaining closed for safety reasons. Why? Because Lebanese people have not been able to withdraw their money as the economy has collapsed. That’s why many have gone armed to their banks to demand their own money.
PEOPLE FLEEING A FAILING STATE
Hundreds upon hundreds of Lebanese as well as refugees, particularly Syrians and Palestinians, have been seeking escape via dangerous boat trips across the Mediterranean trying to reach Italy and the rest of Europe. This past September dozens of refugees drowned when a boat from Lebanon capsized off the coast of Syria. It was not the first such tragedy and won’t be the last. In a poll, more than half of Lebanon’s population wants to leave permanently.
Over the past several years, the economy has experienced a meltdown. It is a deep human crisis. Years of war, sectarian violence, and rampant corruption have led to extreme poverty for Lebanon’s citizens, and for the thousands upon thousands of Middle East refugees living in the country.
The Lebanese pound has lost 95% of its value against the dollar. People cannot afford to buy food or medicine as prices have skyrocketed, as has unemployment. Electricity in Beirut is often on only for an hour or two after midnight. The World Bank ranks Lebanon’s economic collapse among the world’s three worst since the mid-1800s in terms of its effect on people’s living standards.
CORRUPTION AND NEGLECT
There are multiple strands to this crisis, but two or three things stand out. First, the extreme corruption particularly by Lebanese politicians and parties, who, aware of the growing crisis, just let the country sink.
Nothing demonstrates this disorder more than the horrific 2020 Beirut port explosion of more than 2,500 tons of ammonium nitrate knowingly stored for six years in a port warehouse with no safety precautions. The blast shook all of Lebanon and was felt in much of the Middle East as well as some of Europe. Over 200 people were killed, 7,000 injured, with $15 billion of property damage. Protests erupted across Lebanon against the government for their failure to prevent the disaster.
Second, as the economy was collapsing, the richer nations of the world refused to lend assistance to avert a financial disaster.
Third, Europe’s severe limitation on legal migration from the Middle East and Africa has left desperate people no choice but “illegal” migration via dangerous sea journeys resulting in thousands of migrant deaths.
The absurd notion that economic crises are somehow separate from human rights crises remains with us today. Lebanon is a manifestation of this.