Economy

Iranians Used To Flee For Politics, Now It's Economics

The desperation to leave Islamic Iran has spread from writers, dissidents and minority groups to hundreds of thousands of Iranians willing to live and work "anywhere that isn't Iran."

Iranian men wearing protective face masks walk along a street-side near Tehran's Traditional Grand bazaar

Citizens walking along a street-side in Tehran, Iran

Hamed Mohammadi and Roshanak Astaraki

-Analysis-

Not so long ago, people leaving Iran did so temporarily, and were from specific social groups like students or persecuted minorities. Today, emigration has become a crucial life choice weighed by many, if not most, Iranian families.

The principal destinations in previous years were Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia. Iranians were ready to pay the price required to buy themselves a better life in "first world" destinations. Today, they're no longer eyeing the most advanced countries but anywhere "that isn't Iran."


For years now, political motives have given way to economic insecurity as the most important reason for leaving. The Islamic Republic, whose officials used to insist they would stop the "brain drain," has dealt such a blow to Iran's socio-economic foundations that it is no longer just the middle class who want to flee. All types of Iranians, from every social class, want a place where they can live in peace (although migration has particularly spiked among professionals). They are now relocating to developing states in East Asia and Africa.

Seeking fortune in Asia

In 2020, the Iran Migration Observatory (IMO), a state-affiliated organization in Iran, estimated that emigration had quadrupled in the previous 30 years. The rate tripled just between 2017 and 2020, a period of several bouts of mass unrest against the state. The regime arrested thousands in the various demonstrations, while hundreds of protesters were shot and killed or injured.

It was also one of the worst periods for Iran's economy. The annual inflation rate is believed to have reached 50% by the end of the Persian year (March 2020) to March 20, 2021, while the value of the country's currency — and the purchasing power of millions of people — plummeted. As the middle class slides into poverty, economics is now the main motor behind emigration.

The nation's financial instability is also fueled by political insecurity and widespread corruption. Iran's regime has completely failed to attract private-sector investments from abroad, while government figures indicate an outflow of U.S. $171 billion in domestic capital in the past 16 years. Part of this money belongs to employers who will take their wealth, knowledge and creativity to other countries. Of course, another chunk of this cash belongs to regime cronies.

Lacking a few hundred thousand dollars or more to invest in places like Canada or Australia, many households have turned to Asia in a bid to save their depreciating assets at home and earn residency rights abroad. That has turned countries like Malaysia and Georgia into hot migration destinations. Some locations are favored by certain groups, as Kayhan London reported in 2020 that technicians and construction workers tend to settle in neighboring states like Iraq or seek the prosperity of the Persian Gulf.

But the number one destination for Iranian migrants is Turkey, according to an IMO report. The Iranian foreign ministry estimated 126,000 Iranian nationals are presently living there, and the number of Iranians entering Turkey quadrupled between 2017 and 2019. Turkey's own national statistical agency identified Iranians as the biggest group of foreign home buyers: In September 2021 alone, Iranians bought 1,323 properties.

City view from a car on the highway , Tehran, Iran.

Chamran Highway, Tehran, Iran.

Arman Taherian / Unsplash

Brain drain again 

Professionals and families with their children's prospects in mind make up a large portion of these emigrants. Few government figures are available for this demographic, but the numbers pegged by relevant associations show a rising departure rate among a range of both white-collar workers — including physicians, nurses, engineers — and blue-collared employees like welders and construction workers. The main causes, broadly speaking, are the gaping discrepancies between work hours, earnings and living costs.

Figures show that more than 1,000 physicians sought work in other countries in the summer of 2021. This was in the midst of a pandemic, in a country that reportedly needs an extra 50,000 medics and nurses. Mohammad Hossein Mandegar, a heart surgeon in Tehran, warns that if present migration rates continue, future Iranian heart patients may have to travel abroad for treatment, or Iran will have to import specialists.

In September, Mohammad Sharifi-Moqaddam, the secretary-general of the national association House of the Nurse (Khane-ye parastar), observed a sixfold increase in the number of nurses looking to migrate since the pandemic began in Iran. Other officials have also confirmed this growth, citing reasons such as "economic problems" and "lack of support from authorities."

Athletes on the run

One important migrant group is students and graduates — Iran's future assets. This is, in part, a reaction to the regime's treatment of educated elites. In 2020, a deputy head of the parliamentary education and research committee, Mohammad Vahidi, said Iran was one of the "top" countries in terms of numbers of highly educated migrants. Almost 40% of Iranian winners of scientific medals and awards have sought to leave.

Iran had the second-biggest contingent in the Refugee Olympic Team.

Numerous firms are now offering, with or without official approval, services to would-be applicants for foreign universities or educational entities. Top students will naturally want to abandon a country whose regime prefers loyal fools and close relatives in top positions, over qualified individuals who will not toe the line.

Migrants even include prize-winning sportsmen and women. A good many have fallen into relative or acute poverty, and are unable to pay for training. On occasions, Iranians qualifying for international tournaments in chess, judo and wrestling have had to withdraw in order to avoid competing with an Israeli athlete (Iran officially boycotts the Jewish State). Sixty Iranian athletes have reportedly sought asylum in other countries in the past decade. In the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Iran had the second-biggest contingent in the Refugee Olympic Team, coming after Syria. Not all are fortunate enough to leave, like the famous national boxer who was spotted years back selling wares on a Tehran street.

The last group of migrants? Regime supporters and politicians' relatives looking to lead their privileged lives outside the confines of the crumbling Islamic Republic.


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