Iranians seek foreign shores as reform hopes fade

Thousands leave for Turkey and further afield each year, worn down by the long-running impact of US sanctions and hardliners’ resistance to change

Unlike many Iranians, Maryam never dreamt of emigrating to a western state. She believed her home country could deliver a bright future for her 10-year-old son.

But this year her two-decade-old industrial import business nearly collapsed because of the long-running effect of sanctions imposed by the US. The election in June of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi after moderate candidates were disqualified dealt a blow to her hopes that the situation would improve.

“We almost went bankrupt because of the decline of the [Iranian] rial and sacked our 16 employees this year,” said Maryam (43). “The election did not help me remain hopeful either. I realised it doesn’t matter what people want and reforms cannot happen.”

In the summer the family put their villa in northern Iran up for sale and moved to Turkey. Their plan is to buy a property worth $250,000 (€220,000), qualify for permanent citizenship and then emigrate to Canada or Australia. Iranians do not need a visa to move to Turkey and many others are following suit. Iranians have been the biggest foreign buyers of Turkish property in 2021. They purchased 8,594 homes in the country between January and November this year, up from 6,425 in the same period in 2020.


More than 42,000 Iranians emigrated to Turkey in 2019, according to the latest available figures, compared with about 32,000 the previous year and 15,000 in 2016. About 18,000 people from Iran also left Turkey in 2019, but it is unclear whether they returned home or went elsewhere.

While there is little Iranian data on either emigration or capital flight, in the words of Ruhollah Hazratpour, a hardline member of parliament, the level of immigration is a "catastrophe".

“What have we done to people that makes them spend their savings to buy houses and properties in other countries?” he said. “People are upset with increasing tensions in relations with the world. People are naturally angry that only one school of thought is propagated.”

Iran's former minister of science, Mansour Gholami, confirmed earlier this year that 900 university professors left the county in 2019. Ali Salarian, a deputy at the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran which licenses and regulates healthcare professionals, said last month that as many as 3,000 doctors leave every year.

‘Brain drain’

Emigration has ebbed and flowed since the creation of the Islamic republic – many left in the wake of the 1979 revolution and after the war with Iraq in the 1980s. In recent decades hopes of reform had stemmed the flow of people.

But the 2015 nuclear deal – under which sanctions were lifted in return for the curbing of nuclear activity – fell apart after the US abandoned it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. Hardliners’ resistance to any meaningful change have dashed hopes among pro-democracy Iranians.

Iranians doubt the nuclear negotiations with world powers in Vienna will deliver lasting results. With inflation at nearly 45 per cent and the national currency in decline since 2018, many citizens believe that no matter how hard they try, things will not improve.

This was made clear to the president when he visited Sharif university this month. In a busy hall, a student representative said: “Mr Raisi! We speak to you not as a president elected by people’s votes in a free and fair election, but as someone who represents a state...which has been unable to build a path for growth and has made Iran drown into various crises and mega-crises.

“Do you – who is concerned about brain drain and brag about hiring experts – know about the summoning and arresting of students and the academics?” the student asked.

‘The corrupt’

Meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month warned that encouraging educated youth to migrate was "blatantly a treason to the country".

This comment has made university professors cautious about writing recommendation letters for students who are eager to study overseas.

“But the reality is that as soon as students get into university they focus on their resumes and their first questions are what is the best way is to leave the country? What kinds of scientific journals are good for this purpose?” said a 36-year-old university professor of civil engineering at a prestigious university. He and his wife hope to move to the US or Australia.

Hassan, a 35-year-old carpenter, is thinking of emigrating to Germany. The son of a retired member of the Revolutionary Guards, whose uncle was "martyred" during the war with Iraq, insists that he has no attachment to the theocratic state.

His main concern is the future of his three-year-old son. “In this country, the corrupt have a good life. The rest – like me – are struggling, or bend over [big] street dustbins looking for food in the garbage,” he said. “I don’t want to hear how difficult migration could be. Even if my life improves by 1 per cent, that makes me hopeful that my child’s future can improve by 100 per cent.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021