Lebanese citizens abroad no longer have access to their bank accounts and are subjected to draconian restrictions imposed by Lebanese banks on withdrawals made outside the country. As the economic and financial crisis worsened, the restrictions became more severe. Some of them now have to live on some tens of dollars a month, that if they are allowed to withdraw any cash at all, even though their accounts are not empty. In recent months, the banks have drastically reduced oversea withdrawal limits, and in some cases, the amounts are so small they are not even enough to cover everyday living expenses. On average, they can only make withdrawals ranging from $30 to $100 a month.
"Initially, I could withdraw $100 a month, which of course, was not enough. On top of that, with each withdrawal, I paid a fee of $15 to my bank in Lebanon and $5 to the one I was withdrawing from in Nepal, so I lost 20 dollars each time. But, since June, I've been surviving on $30 a month," Yehya told L'Orient-Le Jour. "When I first heard the news, I got so angry and threatened the bank to burn my passport live on social media. I was then allowed to spend $100 per month but online. The problem is I can hardly pay for anything online here. I need cash."
Moreover, Yehya discovered that his bank was adopting a double standard policy toward its customers. "I was once called by mistake and was told I could withdraw $1,800. I could not believe it. Then I found out that they mistook me to another customer and that I was only allowed to withdraw $100. I was furious."
Lacking the resources, Yehya thought of a few ways to support himself and embarked on a photo project hoping that it would earn him some money. In the meantime, the young man continues to negotiate with his bank, which, he said, told him that it is time for him to return home. "The bank takes itself for my parents and is telling me that I must return to Lebanon now that the flights have resumed, but Nepal has not reopened its borders," he exclaimed, all the more outraged."We were told that there could be a plane going to Beirut in August, but I don't even know how to pay for my ticket."
A woman withdrawing money from an ATM shielded with an iron gate in Beirut. Many banks in the capital are now restricting access to ATMs overnight. AFP / Patrick Baz
From 3,000 Euros to Zero
R. is a dentist based in Beirut whose parents have been stranded in Greece since February where they face a situation just as bad as Yehya's. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said his retired elderly parents thought they could use his bankcard in Greece since they were not able to withdraw money before leaving. At the time, banks in Lebanon were closed, and it was not possible to withdraw cash from the ATMs. Since February, their withdrawal limit has dropped from 3,000 euros per month to zero euros on July 1.
"I have a bank card which costs me 100 dollars a year, but I can use zero euros abroad," lamented the dentist who denounced the "lack of professionalism" of Lebanese banks. "In February, the withdrawal limit was 3,000 euros per month, and then it was reduced to 1,500 euros. In April, it became 100 euros per month. At that point, I lost my mind," he told L'Orient-Le Jour. After tough negotiations, the bank finally allowed R.'s parents to withdraw 875 euros in April. However, in May and June, the withdrawal limit dropped again to 100 euros. R. said he was spending more time at the bank than at his clinic to negotiate raising the withdrawal limit for his parents.
"On July 1, I was shocked to find that out they could no longer make any withdrawals," he said. After going through so much stress, he managed to enable his parents to withdraw 300 euros within the authorized limits on four different cards belonging to him and to his wife, which of course is not enough to cover their expenses. "It's horrible. My parents have to live hand to mouth and tighten their belts, while I have money in the bank. In the worst-case scenario, I will have to buy dollars from the money changers at the black market rate and find a way to send it to them until they return to Beirut."
The dentist is further dismayed by the Lebanese authorities' complete indifference toward this problem. The many Lebanese stranded or settled abroad are too and more: they are frightened because they know they have no one to resort to; if they face any health or other problem, the Lebanese authorities will do nothing to help them. And these Lebanese are not destitute, but they are deprived of access to their bank accounts while they could use their money under certain conditions like their compatriots in Lebanon.
"Nothing is guaranteed for August"
This dismay was echoed by I., a Lebanese-Lithuanian woman who also spoke on condition of anonymity. Stranded since the end of February in Lithuania with her two-year-old son, she now has to survive on 500 dollars a month after her withdrawal limit was reduced without notice. "Surviving on $500 a month here is difficult, especially with a child. With this sum, I can only buy food and a few bus tickets. But if I face an emergency, I'll be in big trouble. My son will need to be vaccinated soon, and we are not insured here. To get insurance, I will have to pay 900 euros, which I am unable to do," she told OLJ.
"I had a limit of $5,000 a month, which dropped to $1,000 in January. I still managed with $1,000. But in mid-May, the bank cut the authorized amount by half. With 500 dollars, I can only survive for 15 days here," lamented the young woman.
After contacting her bank and raised her voice, she managed to get $1,500 in July, but the bank warned her that "nothing is guaranteed for August." Besides, I. and her son cannot return to Lebanon because the airline they traveled with has not yet resumed its flights to Beirut, and buying new tickets is impossible with the restrictions imposed by her bank.
"It is our right to use our money however we wish. The banks should not be allowed to dictate our spending or our way of life," protested the young mother. "I am afraid that I will feel imprisoned once I return to Lebanon. Banks expect you to do whatever they want. We are not even sure that we will ever be able to access our hard-earned money again. It's just horrible," she said.
The situation of Lebanese abroad is not likely to get better anytime soon. This is almost certain. Sources at the Association of Banks in Lebanon suggest that it will not be possible to lift these restrictions soon. However, the Lebanese stranded outside the country can still call the ABL on the following toll-free number: 00 961 1 970 500 for assistance.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 17th of July)
Yehya has been stranded in Nepal for almost five months. His planned two-month spiritual retreat turned into a nightmare when he was stuck there after Lebanon closed its borders last March to stem the spread of coronavirus. The 29-year-old man already spent all the cash he had on him, and since June 1, his bank has capped his cash withdrawals to just $30 a month. Whether stranded or settled...