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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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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