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Iran Report: January 7, 2002

7 January 2002, Volume 5, Number 1

The next issue of "RFE/RL Iran Report" will appear on 21 January.

IRAN'S BRAIN DRAIN: CAUSES AND TRENDS. America's abundant natural resources and the mobility of its labor force contributed to that country's economic success in the 19th and 20th centuries. But sometimes the mobility of labor can be harmful when a country's educated people head for greener pastures elsewhere. This phenomenon is termed the "brain drain" -- "farar-i maqzha" in colloquial Persian -- and formally defined as the "departure of educated or professional people from one country, economic sector, or field for another, usually for better pay or living conditions." Most developing and also some "developed" countries, such as Canada, are concerned about brain drain. Even the U.S. is experiencing a brain drain of sorts, in which people from one state go to another in search of jobs.

This phenomenon has affected Iran, too, prompting expressions of concern from national leaders. Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said in July 2001 that state officials should take steps to stop brain drain. Minister of Science, Research and Technology Mustafa Moin said in May 2001 that some 220,000 "leading academic elites and industrialists" left Iran for Western countries in the last year, and he did not think that these Iranians would return. A little over a year ago, Abolqassem Sarhadi-Zadeh, who heads the parliamentary Social Affairs Committee, said that brain drain is one of Iran's most pressing problems.

There is little reason to think that these officials are exaggerating. The Western press and wire services carry, on an almost daily basis, reports about the apprehension of Iranians (as well as Kurds, Afghans, and Iraqis), who have put themselves in the hands of people smugglers. But the better life that these people are seeking is illusory; some end up in refugee camps for many months. Those who avoid arrest end up working for survival wages in the underground economy; and in the case of the women, they can be forced into prostitution. Refugees increasingly are the victims of racist attacks -- Europe sees one racist attack every three minutes, according to a report in "Refugees Magazine."

This paper attempts to examine why Iranians are leaving Iran. The reasons for the departures will be examined from two perspectives: (a) what do asylum seekers tell European immigration officers; and (b) what reasons are given in the Iranian press. It should be noted that most of the information in this paper was secured by synthesizing and evaluating existing data, rather than by collecting original data. The author was unable to apply a truly methodological approach to this topic -- using surveys, focus groups, or even brainstorming sessions. Second, the information from the immigration officers was provided on the condition that neither the sources nor their countries would be identified.


According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, "when people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in a second state, they apply for 'asylum' -- or the right to be recognized as bona fide refugees and the legal protection and material assistance that status implies."

Iranians are among the top asylum seekers in many countries, and there have been a number of embarrassing incidents. In April 1999, a wrestler refused to return to Iran after a tournament in Italy, and he sought asylum in an unnamed European country. That same month, the Swedish Foreign Ministry filed charges against its Tehran Embassy for illegally issuing visas and residency permits in exchange for bribes. The official responsible for issuing visas at the French Embassy in Tehran was suspended and sent back to France for improperly issuing more than 350 visas to middlemen. Information on how to apply for a U.S. Resident Alien card -- a Green Card -- was downloaded from the Internet and sold in Tehran book stores, newspaper stands, and supermarkets. Moreover, emigration agents advertise openly in Iranian newspapers.

It is difficult to get precise numbers on the number of Iranians who seek asylum in other countries. The numbers that are available, furthermore, only apply to legal migrants, and the academic qualifications of the asylum-seekers were not described. From 1987�2000, some 40,054 Iranian refugees were admitted to the United States, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service:

1987 -- 6,681

1988 -- 6,167

1989 -- 5,147

1990 -- 3,329

1991 -- 2,692

1992 -- 1,949

1993 -- 1,161

1994 -- 851

1995 -- 978

1996 -- 1,256

1997 -- 1,305

1998 -- 1,699

1999 -- 1,739

2000 -- 5,100

According to the UNHCR, Iranians are among the top five applicants for asylum in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Holland, and the United Kingdom. European states' openness on refugee statistics varies. Germany, for example, makes these statistics available at the Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees website. Some 290 Iranians sought asylum in Germany in October 2001, accounting for 3.31 percent of all applicants that month, and they were 3.96 percent (2,957) of the applicants from January-October 2001:

1988 -- 7,867

1989 -- 5,768

1990 -- 7,271

1991 -- 8,643

1992 -- N/A

1993 -- N/A

1994 -- 3,445

1995 -- 3,908

1996 -- 4,809

1997 -- 3,838

1998 -- 2,955

1999 -- 3,407

2000 -- 4,878

Almost 80,000 people applied for asylum in Great Britain in 2000-01, according to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office, and Iranians were among the top four. During that same period, 6,310 Iranians sought asylum in the U.K., compared to 1,625 in the previous year.

Iranians are the largest immigrant group in Sweden, after Iraqis, Finns, and Yugoslavs. At the end of 2000, 52,038 Iranian-born individuals resided in Sweden; 25 years earlier there were 998 of them.

Other countries are not willing to reveal specific information, but immigration officials were willing to describe some of their findings in interviews with "RFE/RL Iran Report." In one European country, 1,048 Iranians applied for asylum from January-October 2001, making it second only to Algeria (1,500). The previous year, 3,183 Iranians applied for asylum there. Also speaking on the condition of anonymity, another immigration official from a West European state said that in 2001, 1,500 Iranians sought refugee there; in 2000, 2,500 Iranians sought refuge; and from 1996-99, 1,700 Iranians sought refuge annually. Two-thirds of them are 25-30-year-old men; and they are well-educated and from the big cities. There are very few rural refugees, and most of them are ethnically Persian. Information about Iranian immigrants in Sweden is similar: The majority are from Tehran and other large cities, and have graduated from high school or university, or were university students before immigration.

But there is little to encourage the refugees, according to this official. More than 80 percent of their applications are rejected. Twenty percent of them have their applications rejected within 48 hours in an accelerated process. In the case of Belgium, accelerated procedures have allowed Brussels to considerably reduce its flow of illegal migrants: 90 percent of asylum requests now are rejected at the border. The procedure has become so difficult in Belgium that even true refugees prefer to enter the country clandestinely because they see that as their only chance of success.

As each European country tightens its regulations, news spreads among asylum seekers and they head for states with more liberal laws. For example, when other European countries began erecting barriers, asylum requests in Holland doubled between 1992 and 1993 and rose by 51 percent in 1994. Amsterdam adopted new legislation in January 1995 because it did not want to take in all the asylum seekers who were being rejected elsewhere.

The Iranian government often is not keen to take back people who state outright that they were seeking asylum, an immigration official told "RFE/RL Iran Report." In such cases, the receiving country does not hold them; and when they are released they either drift into the underground economy, where they work illegally, they get into crime, or they seek asylum elsewhere.


Some Iranians attempt to portray expatriates as unpatriotic and hostile to the theocratic regime. Those who left Iran at the time of the revolution were, according to Said Hajjarian's letter to the "Noruz" daily, "monarchists and those whose interests were secured by the survival of the despotic regime." The next wave of emigration, according to Hajjarian, consisted of "the horde called the Mujahedin-i Khalq [Organization] that acted as the Persian-speaking battalion of the attacking Iraqi Army during the Iran-Iraq War," as well as the Worker Communist Party of Iran and Kurdish rebels.

A more dispassionate scholarly observer notes that the wave of Iranian emigration can be broken down into four periods. The first period was from summer 1978 to winter 1979 and consisted mainly of "high-ranked officials, influential industrialists, investors, financiers, and some persons related to the Pahlavi regime." The second period began when the Islamic clergy seized power in February 1979; during this period, military commanders as well as religious and ethnic minorities fled the country. The third period began with the summer 1981 removal from power of President Abol Hassan Bani Sadr. The fourth period began around 1984, when larger numbers of young men were being sent to the war against Iraq. So many youth joined the flow of refugees.

It may be true that Iranians leave their country because of their distaste for the regime. Most of them, however, love their country and leave it only because they believe they have no other choice. The main reason Iranians leave their country is economic necessity. Officially, the Iranian unemployment rate is 13.86 percent, according to a report issued by Iran's Statistics Department that was quoted in "Iran Daily." Problems such as hidden unemployment, underemployment in the government bureaucracy and in quasi-state organizations, and very low productivity are not included in these figures, however, and unofficial estimates place unemployment at around 25 percent. President Mohammad Khatami has said that at least 760,000 jobs a year are necessary. And in October 2001 he told parliament that 42 percent of the people seeking jobs every year could not find employment.

A good job, it is believed, is the result of a good education, and there is intense demand for university places. The entrance exams are very competitive -- of the approximately 1.5 million people who take the exams annually, only 130,000 actually begin studies. It is not just one's score on the exam that counts. Being related to an official, or having some sort of connection with a powerful individual, improves one's chances. Being the child of martyr in the Iran-Iraq War also gives an applicant a better shot. President Khatami denied the existence of an "old boy network" in society during an August 2000 speech, but he agreed that cronyism existed and that this has an impact on brain drain.

One computer science student described how he sees the situation: "If I want to continue my education here [in Iran], there are people who must endorse my qualification, such as the Basij, the Islamic Association, the representative of the foundation of the Leadership. After all that they must confirm my qualification secretly. This is intolerable for me to see those people who are not good enough to be a judge of something be given the authority to confirm my qualifications."

After winning a university place, a student is motivated to do well just so he or she can win a scholarship to study overseas. This is because the facilities at the universities often are unappealing and inadequate. Ninety percent of the education budget goes for salaries and fringe benefits for Education and Training Ministry personnel, while the academic buildings suffer from overuse and are in poor physical condition. There have been calls for the private sector to play a greater role in funding academic institutions, as is the case in some Western countries, before the educational sector submits to these difficulties.

Even after finishing their university studies, young people find that there are few jobs available. Dr. Ismaili, secretary of a conference on higher education and employment, said that each year 270,000 university graduates enter the job market, whereas only 75,000 can be absorbed. The situation faced by trained health-care professionals is a case in point: Some 4,000 physicians, 14,000 midwives, and 17,000 nurses are unemployed, and hospitals are laying off personnel while 5,000 medical students graduate every year. Fourteen non-governmental employment agencies and 11 private-sector employment agencies exist to help Iranians find jobs overseas, but the head of an agency in Tehran said that it could take up to six months to find an applicant a job, according to "Entekhab."

According to "Doran-i Imruz," this means that young people think that they do not have a part to play in running the country and there is a sense of futility. People's lower-order needs go unfulfilled, too -- marriage is unaffordable. Looking for employment can be degrading, because graduates must "line up anew with the rest of the uneducated, or little educated, army of unemployed, in search of a lucrative job or a source of income (while they are five to 10 years older than their less-educated competitors)." The jobs that they find often have little to do with their studies and specialization.

This situation was reflected in the first inquiry that Khatami fielded in a televised program during the 2001 presidential campaign. "We want the president to pay more attention to the youth and solve the problems of their employment," the question began.

The atmosphere in the universities does not encourage qualified academics to stay, either. The sense of insecurity resulting from the July 1999 unrest is increased by the intrusion of political factionalism into the academic environment. Scholars and scientists do not think that they are respected or that their work is appreciated. An Education Ministry official said that a "large number" of university scholars who go abroad on sabbatical contact their home institutions and request unpaid leave, and this is a clear sign that they are reluctant to return to Iran. The official ascribed this to insufficient research facilities and laboratories, as well as poor salaries.

People are not granted refugee status because they cannot find good jobs, although European immigration officials recognize that this is the main reason why people flee Iran. In a recent interview, one such official said that the reasons given by asylum seekers tend to change with time and reflect current events. The top reason Iranians give for seeking asylum is that they are being persecuted for their political activities; they claim that they are Communists, Socialists, or members of underground trade unions. Such claims are impossible to verify. A few asylum seekers say they are members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO). A greater number say that they are not members of the MKO, but they were being persecuted for helping a friend who is in the MKO.

A recent development is the claim by asylum seekers that they are members of the Liberation Movement (Nehzat-i Azadi), or LMI. Mass arrests of LMI activists began in Spring 2001, a warrant for their leader is outstanding (Ebrahim Yazdi, who is in Texas for medical treatment, said that he would return if a trial by jury is guaranteed), and their trial began in early November 2001. Some people claim they are members of the Ahvaz Liberation Front or the outlawed Kurdish parties, such as the Komala or the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran. Some of the asylum seekers claim they risk persecution in Iran because they are journalists.

Religion and social relations are also among the reasons that Iranians give for seeking asylum. Some women claim they committed adultery or are seeking a divorce and fear that their husbands might harm them. Homosexuality is illegal under Sharia law, and some men have claimed that they are homosexuals and fear persecution. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, the penalty for which is death. A number of asylum seekers claim that they converted after meeting with evangelical Christians. Bahais always have been persecuted by the state. After 13 Jews in Shiraz were arrested and accused of espionage in early 1999, there was an increase in the number of asylum seekers claiming that they are Jews.

An immigration official from another European country offered similar information about Iranian asylum seekers. The biggest reason these Iranians gave for requesting asylum was religion. Some 28.2 percent claimed they belonged to religious minorities (Christians, Bahais, Sunnis, Zoroastrians, or Wahhabis) or their behavior did not conform to religious regulations (alcohol consumption, dating members of the opposite sex, possession of pornographic videos, hijab, or apostasy). Another 18.5 percent said they needed asylum for political reasons; 14.5 percent said they were monarchists, in the MKO, the KDPI, or were nationalists, while 4 percent said a friend or family member was politically active.

More than 15 percent of the asylum applicants said that they had engaged in anti-government actions, such as demonstrations, handing out leaflets, or shouting or painting slogans. Twelve percent said they were members of student organizations and had been involved in the July 1999 demonstrations. Ten percent said they were participants in the demonstrations (over inadequate city services) in Abadan in July 2000.

Some 4.2 percent of the asylum applicants cited social problems: homosexuality, divorce, or physical handicaps. Another 3.5 percent said they were members of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or they were deserters. Two and a half percent of the applicants said they are seeking asylum because they are members of an ethnic minority (Kurds, Arabs, etc.). About 1.4 percent said they needed asylum because they had participated in anti-Iranian protests while they were in Europe. And other claims were based on being journalists or writers. Some even demand asylum because they are drug addicts.

Another reason many Iranians left the country, especially during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, was to avoid mandatory military service. In the 1990s it became possible to buy temporary military exemptions. In mid-October 2001, the general headquarters of the armed services announced that conscripts could not purchase military exemptions any longer. The Military Service Purchase Law was eliminated because the armed forces are faced with manpower shortages, especially in the eastern part of the country. Exemptions still are available for medical reasons or when a person is the sole guardian of his parents.

Immigration officials expressed the belief that asylum seekers often try to invoke reasons with which Westerners would be most sympathetic. The dress code and gender issues, for example, come up in discussions with female officials. People who claim that they are fleeing persecution on the grounds of adultery describe stonings, while others think that Europeans will sympathize with converts to Christianity.


The official in charge of Iranian students in Canada says that there are 4,000 students on government scholarship there; overall, he estimates that 40,000 Iranians are studying overseas. The International Monetary Fund says that up to 40 percent of Iranians who receive government-funded scholarships to study abroad refuse to come home. President Khatami indicated his awareness of the problem when he told a September news conference that he had called on the relevant officials to investigate the causes of the brain drain. He said that he hopes to "reduce the intensity of this phenomenon if not completely reverse it." He went on to note, however, that immigration is not necessarily negative because it is a way of transferring knowledge: "We have many important scientists and intellectuals who live abroad but are serving the revolution and the system and are active in transporting knowledge to Iran."

Khatami was not exaggerating too much, and some Iranians who live in the West return to Iran on an almost annual basis. The effort to attract Iranians began during the post-war reconstruction era of President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Political uncertainty meant that this was not a very successful effort, but more and more Iranians have been coming back since Khatami's 1997 election. Some of the reasons are financial. One businessman said that he enjoys much more economic security in Tehran than he did in California, where he ran a supermarket for 15 years, and there are more opportunities for him. Another man, who had started an Internet service provider, said, "[T]here would have been no way for me to get enough money to start my business in America."

There also are sentimental and cultural reasons for returning to Iran. One woman who had been living in Chicago said that her childhood in the U.S. was marked by ugly incidents: "I would try to explain in school that there were reasons why Iran had a problem with America, but that only made it worse." A couple who lived in London for 20 years finally came back to Iran because they did not want their children to forget their cultural roots, although their daughters found wearing hijab intolerable. Hussein Nassiri, the director of Iran's Organization of Free Zones (Negar-i Manateq-i Azad), where some of the returnees prefer to set up their businesses, explained that in his experience the first generation of emigres had specific reasons for leaving Iran. The second generation, however, feels "rootless," as if it belongs "neither to one place nor to another."

Other Iranians return to their country to benefit financially but also to make a contribution. Admitting that Iran's untapped economic potential is exciting, one American-educated Iranian added, "I came to Iran to help my country." And a British-educated colleague said that an objective of their firm is to train their compatriots in Western-style management techniques. An electrical engineering professor said that one of his colleagues saw himself as just another Ph.D. when he was working overseas, but in Iran he has contacts and now has so much work to do that he hardly has time to sleep.

The pace at which Iranians are returning is deemed insufficient by some observers. In December 2000, the "Abrar" daily demanded that authorities act to stop the brain drain in an article entitled, "Let's put a stop to uncontrolled emigration." Emigration is unlikely to stop until adequate employment, coupled with more comfortable living conditions, becomes available.

SOURCES: Agence France Presse; Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees, Germany; Immigration & Nationality Directorate, Home Office, United Kingdom; Islamic Republic News Agency; U.S. Committee for Refugees; Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran; Abrar; Afarinesh; Aftab-i Yazd; Arya; Badjens; Bahar; Business Week; Dagens Nyheter; Doran-i Imruz; Entekhab; Hayat-i No; International Migration; Iran; Iran Daily; Jam-i Jam; Loh; Middle East Times; Noruz; Qods; Refugees Magazine; Resalat; Shoma.