Wings clipped for Lebanon’s soaring emigration as passport renewal process slows

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As Lebanon’s crises continue to deepen, many members of the population are seeking to leave their home country in search of better prospects abroad. Still, many are being held back by restrictions imposed on their inability to apply for or renew their passports.

The collapse of the Lebanese lira over the last two years has led to an exponential increase in the cost of living, down to necessities like food, fuel, and power. Over ninety percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and nearly one-in-three Lebanese are unemployed.

Not being able to travel means missing out on job opportunities outside the country and the more reliable salaries paid in fresh foreign currency on which many families in Lebanon now depend.

“My passport expires in 2023,” said Siham Sulaiman, a Beirut resident. “I’m hoping to renew as soon as possible – to avoid complications – [but] I don’t have an appointment.”

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“When it comes to delays and issues, nothing is off the table,” she continued.

“They could postpone [your appointment] without giving any reasonable time, or the first possible appointment could be months – if not a year – later.”
Obtaining official documents in Lebanon is often difficult, frustrating, and protracted due to a lack of standardized practices and poor record keeping. Costs have also increased significantly since the onset of the financial crisis.

“I’ve known for a while that official papers and documents were not available, so it was a matter of time before it hits our passports,” said Lea Aouad, another Lebanese citizen. “The fees to renew were becoming crazy, so – even if passports were available – not many people are able to renew because they cannot afford it.”

“I have a US passport [but for] the numerous cousins I have in Lebanon, my sister-in-law, and my friends, their experience has been horrid,” said Elias Nader, a Lebanese-American living in California. “There is no complete information on what to do. They are waiting and waiting and cannot get a response back from anyone.”

Renewing a passport also requires a physical appointment, which people can only obtain through an online booking service. It excludes those without internet access or who cannot travel to their official meeting place at the appointed time. It consists of a rapidly expanding proportion of the Lebanese population.

Passengers walk with their luggage at Beirut international airport, Lebanon. (File photo: Reuters)
Passengers walk with their luggage at Beirut international airport, Lebanon. (File photo: Reuters)

In April, the problem peaked as the demand for passports exceeded the physical stocks held in reserve by the Lebanese General Directorate of the General Security. It followed a dispute over payments to its French supplier company. Despite suspending its website for several months, the GDGS insists that it never stopped issuing or renewing passports.

“Although obtaining a passport is a constitutional right, the unaccounted rise in the number of passport renewals depleted the limited inventory,” a GDGS spokesperson told Al Arabiya English. “The passport reservation platform was stopped, and the total number of daily applicants was limited to cope with the unexpected rise in demand.”

According to the GDGS, nearly 70 percent of citizens who renewed their passports between 2020 and 2021 have not yet used them. It has prompted the government body to appeal for restraint on the part of citizens in the hope of avoiding further unnecessary delays, allowing those with genuine, urgent requirements to be processed faster.

“[We ask] citizens who do not urgently need a passport not to hurry to book appointments, to enable those who desperately need to get a passport,” the GDGS said in an official statement. “These passports will be secured to those who claim them as their right and a construction of laws that guard this right.”

Despite this, within days of reopening the booking system, appointments for passport renewals were already fully booked until April 2023. It has left some citizens concerned that the GDGS will suspend the renewal if the new physical stocks fail to meet the enormous demand.

“I feel insecure being in a country going through such a situation without the option of leaving,” said Aouad. “I feel trapped, anxious, and disconnected from the world. [It is a] horrible feeling, especially when you [are going] through blackouts and fuel shortages.”

Some citizens believe that the government is using the passport crisis to indirectly restrict the flow of emigrants – particularly students and young professionals – out of the country, to prevent a feared ‘brain drain’ that threatens Lebanon’s economic recovery.

Others take a dimmer view, regarding the move as simply another opportunity for the wealthy political elite to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens or obstruct Lebanese expatriates from voting in the recent parliamentary elections.

“[They] wanted to prevent expats with a Lebanese passport from traveling back to Lebanon to vote,” said Nader. “Many expats who wanted their passports renewed could not get them [and] their local embassies could not tell them why. Also, they want to prevent the current exodus of doctors, nurses, and professionals due to the economic disaster that has engulfed the country.”

“After the explosion on August 4, and with this crisis, people just want to leave,” echoed Aouad. “[This is] a way for the corrupt politicians not to allow that and, by increasing the fees, it is another way for them to profit and steal money.”

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