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Economic, political factors driving increase in migration from Iran

Officials attribute this exodus to the low salaries of healthcare workers in Iran, but the other factors are never mentioned-AFP
Officials attribute this exodus to the low salaries of healthcare workers in Iran, but the other factors are never mentioned-AFP
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09 Jan 2024 06:01:21 GMT9
09 Jan 2024 06:01:21 GMT9

There are two different trends in Iran’s recent migration dynamics. Firstly, the country has experienced an accelerating trend of elite migration toward Western countries. According to official sources, Iranian migrants prefer countries such as the US, Australia, Canada, Germany and the UK. Secondly, there has been a new phenomenon since the end of the 2010s of poor Iranians, such as workers, migrating due to the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and rise of political instability.

This has led to the rise of new destinations for Iranian migrants, including the Gulf states of the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, as well as Turkiye. Official reports indicate an increase in the tendency of Iranian workers to migrate. Today, advertisements and calls to recruit Iranians to work in Iraq are an example of this new phenomenon, according to the conservative official newspaper Khorasan. Iran’s labor community is now considering the possibility of migrating to the city of Irbil in northern Iraq because the basic salary is higher than in Iran. Also, given the high wages offered in countries like Kuwait, there is a significant number of Iranian workers moving there. The wages in countries such as Turkiye, Iraq, Azerbaijan and the UAE are two to three times higher than those in Iran.

Consequently, the comparatively low compensation for labor in Iran appears to be a significant driver of Iranian workers leaving their homeland. According to an analysis by Khorasan, a worker in the UAE could receive a salary of $1,500 to $2,000 per month, while in Oman it is about $800 and in Turkiye it is between $600 and $800. Meanwhile, the salary of a worker in Iran is often less than $200 per month.

The fact that the desire to migrate is very high among the youth is of particular concern for the Iranian political establishment

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

Given these dire economic conditions, the rise in migration among the poorest segments of Iranian society could be even higher, given that there is a significant number of citizens who have refused to leave the country due to financial reasons, language barriers or family reasons. The fact that the desire to migrate is very high among the youth is of particular concern for the Iranian political establishment.

The reasons given by Iranian citizens to explain their wish to migrate include the absence of a meritocracy in the Iranian economic and political system, the lack of job opportunities in the Iranian market, poor working conditions and low salaries. Khorasan last month reported that 67 percent of university graduates were willing to emigrate. And Rasul Sadeghi, a member of the Elite Migration Working Group at the Academy of Sciences of the Islamic Republic of Iran, underlined that: “In the Iranian year 2014-2015, the desire to migrate among the Iranian population over the age of 18 was 23 percent, but in the Iranian year 2021-2022 it reached 46 percent. That is, it doubled in seven years. This means that the economic and social structures of society have many problems.”

​Iran witnessed the world’s fastest growth in terms of migration rate between 2020 and 2021, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data. The number of Iranian migrants was 48,000 in 2020 and 115,000 in 2021, an increase of 141 percent. According to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, the number of new asylum applications made globally by Iranians in 2022 rose 44 percent compared to the previous year.

The new Iranian migrants from the poorest segment of the population are now leaving their homeland in large numbers, often attempting perilous journeys to reach Western countries. From the start of 2018 until March 2023, migrants from Iran formed the largest group reaching the UK after crossing the English Channel from France in small boats operated by smugglers. Moreover, according to official Iranian statistics, more than 3,000 nurses and 10,000 physicians migrate annually, with an average of 16,000 students leaving Iran each year to pursue further education.

The Iran Migration Observatory considers that Iran is experiencing an ‘uncontrolled mass emigration’ phenomenon

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

The Tehran-based Nilgam Center, an agency providing services to Iranians seeking to emigrate, claims that, between 2010 and 2020, about 500,000 migrants left the country permanently. In April 2020, the Stanford Iran 2040 Project reported that the population of Iran-born emigrants increased from about half a million before the 1979 revolution to 3.1 million in 2019.

Overall, given the rise in migration among the lower social class, the Iran Migration Observatory considers that Iran is experiencing an “uncontrolled mass emigration” phenomenon. This new trend is a product of the deteriorating economic situation, as well as the suppression of dissent after every wave of protests inside Iran: the Green Movement of 2009, popular protests between 2017 and 2018, protests against the rise in oil prices in November 2019 and the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests that started in the fall of 2022 after the killing of Mahsa Amini.

This combination of economic and political factors is the main driver of the recent waves of migration from Iran. Today, the departing population is not only composed of students, athletes, artists, skilled workers and technicians, but also of workers and citizens from the villages of Iran.

To solve this problem, the Iranian authorities are trying to prevent the departure of skilled students in general and healthcare professionals in particular. For instance, the head of the Medical Council of Iran considers that healthcare professionals should not “be allowed to leave the country easily” to ensure that the healthcare system does not collapse.

Meanwhile, the representatives of the ideological aspects of the Iranian political system consider that skilled Iranian migrants are “traitors” or that the phenomenon is exaggerated by enemies of the state. According to Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, alarming reports of the mass emigration of doctors and nurses is part of the “psychological warfare” and “negative propaganda and lies” of Iran’s enemies. However, a recent report published by Iran Open Data stated that the number of doctors who leave Iran to work in more prosperous countries exceeds the number of new doctors trained in the country by 30 percent on an annual basis.

Iranian officials attribute the exodus to the low salaries of healthcare workers in Iran, but the political and geopolitical context is never mentioned. This political denial of a new and accelerating migration phenomenon in Iran is part of the authorities’ strategy to avoid reforming the political system at a time of internal challenges and popular discontent. This political strategy is based on the idea that reforms made from a position of weakness will provoke the beginning of the end of the Iranian political system. This strategy has become a tool of political survival, but the economic and social burdens are so high that a rising number of Iranians have been trying to migrate every year over the last decade.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami
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