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Society

Fleeing Broken Country, Lebanese Look to Cyprus for Safe Harbor

September 7, 2021

NICOSIA — As they did during a murderous 1975-90 civil war, Lebanese are leaving their country in droves again for Cyprus, this time over unstoppable corruption, poverty, crime and shortages of electricity and goods.

In a feature, Agence France-Presse reported on the growing phenomenon and rising exodus, with Cyprus a favored spot only a 25-minute flight away from a country whose capital, Beirut, once was called the Paris of the Middle East.

The last straw for most who are fleeing was the devastating Aug.  4, 2020 explosion in Beirut's port that killed over 200 people and was blamed on corruption and mismanagement of the port.

Lebanon's ambassador to Cyprus, Claude el-Hajal, said the number of families resettled on the island has seen "a significant increase" since then, the news agency said, with the island seen as a haven for them.

"I've had to leave my country and my parents to try to secure a future for my children," said Nanor Abachian, 30, emerging from the airport on the island's south coast with her husband, their two children and seven heavy suitcases.

Lebanon is essentially unlivable, ravaged by corruption, theft of public monies, lack of services and no real government, an example of what happens when wrongdoing is allowed to proliferate and no one in power held to account.

There are 22-hour power cuts and a lack of fuel, gas, medicine and bread and no account of where a $211 million World Bank loan has gone, or $11 billion in international aid since 2018 or why the population hasn’t been helped.

Since the start of an economic crisis in 2019, several thousand Lebanese have emigrated, many of them to Cyprus. There is no official data on numbers, especially as many Lebanese hold second passports.

The Tahir Institute for Middle East Policy said the trouble began with the August, 2019 decline in the value of the Lebanese Lira began to decline, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a socioeconomic collapse.

In May 2020, ESCWA – the United Nations’ economic commission for Western Asia – estimated that 55 percent of the country’s population had plunged into poverty, 23 percent extremely.

GONE TO PIECES

That led to those who couldn’t afford flights trying to reach Cyprus on makeshift boats, like refugees and migrants from Syria and Afghanistan and other countries.

During the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, Cyprus served as a base for the evacuation of almost 60,000 civilians from Lebanon, the report added.

Abachian said a "feeling of insecurity" was the main motivation for their flight abroad. "We are living in the unknown… My children have no future in Lebanon," she said.

Once in Larnaca, she settled with her family at a friend's house, waiting to rent an apartment near the school where the children have been enrolled.

George Obeid, in his forties, also opted for Cyprus for the sake of his children's schooling. "There is no hope for the school year in Lebanon," he said, citing the power cuts and fuel shortages that are crippling school services and activities.

"We were also worried about our safety," he added, fearing a rise in crime due to widespread poverty and desperation.

In Nicosia, the Franco-Cypriot school, which has a curriculum similar to that of several French-language schools in Lebanon, has gotten 250 applications from new arrivals from Lebanon.

It’s not just the desperate and poor leaving Lebanon but companies and firms with skills too.

Constantinos Karageorgis, a senior trade and industry ministry official, said Cyprus had set up a fast-track program to get Lebanese businesses and lured seven and their 200 workers and families.

Lebanese businessman Georges Chahwan, owner of dozens of real estate projects in Cyprus, said he has sold "nearly 400 apartments to Lebanese between 2016 and 2021… including a hundred in the past six months.” Cypriot banks offer loans to Lebanese whose salaries are paid in US dollars, said AFP.

"Ever since 1975, Cyprus has been a haven for the Lebanese," Chahwan said. "The island is a stone's throw from Lebanon, it's stable and safe… They consider it their second home."

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