E.g., 06/29/2024
E.g., 06/29/2024
Iran: A Vast Diaspora Abroad and Millions of Refugees at Home

Iran: A Vast Diaspora Abroad and Millions of Refugees at Home

The Islamic Republic of Iran has captured the world's attention. The hard-liner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the international community's subsequent focus on a nuclear weapons program, combined with the country's involvement in the ongoing crises in the Middle East, have all contributed to keeping Iran firmly in the spotlight.

Although Iran has been seemingly isolated from much of the outside world since the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979, its borders have by no means been closed. To the contrary, the country has produced and hosted abundant flows of emigration and immigration, a steady coming and going mainly driven by key political events.

However, what makes Iran's migration story unique is that it has experienced simultaneous emigration and immigration to extreme degrees. In its recent history, Iran has laid claim to producing the highest rates of brain drain in the world while simultaneously topping the list as the world's largest refugee haven, mainly for Afghans and Iraqis. Iran also exhibits one of the steepest urban growth rates in the world, largely driven by internal migration from rural areas.

Historical Migration Patterns

A bridge in both the geographical and cultural sense of the word, Persia (Iran's name until 1934 when it was changed as part of Reza Shah's modernization efforts), has long connected the great civilizations of Asia, the Near East and the Mediterranean, helping to lay the foundations of the modern world.

Indo-European Aryan tribes and the Medes ruled the region from Pakistan to the Aegean coast of Turkey from 648 BC until the fourth century BC, when Alexander the Great conquered Persia. Other invaders — the Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks — followed, each leaving their mark on Persian culture through their philosophical, artistic, scientific, and religious contributions.

This mosaic of diverse ethnic groups is still visible in Iran today, where Persians compose only 51 percent of the population. Other groups include the Azeris (24 percent), Gilaki and Mazandaranis (eight percent), Kurds (seven percent), Arabs (three percent), Lurs (two percent), Baluchs (two percent), and Turkmens (two percent).

Emigration movements are also part of Iranian history. The Parsis, Persians who followed the Zoroastrian faith, fled to western India after the Arab conquest in AD 936. In the mid-19th century, shortly after the founding of Baha'ism, followers of the faith sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire after facing persecution in Iran.

In the later part of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, high-profile Iranian intellectuals were forced to leave the country as a result of their agitation for reform during the period leading up to Iran's Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911.

Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979

The roots of the Iranian revolution are complex and contradictory. The fall of the 2,500-year-old monarchy was precipitated by some key factors, including corruption at the government level, infringement of civil liberties, underlying religious tendencies, economic inflation, and, perhaps most significantly, polarization of the Iranian people after the overthrow of the nationalist government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, led by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The combination of these disparate factors divided Iranian society into roughly three groups:

  • a Western-educated and Western-oriented elite;

  • an educated middle class of anti-Shah dissidents;

  • and a powerless lower class whose conservatism clashed with the penetration of Western culture and the degradation of Shi'ia values supported by the monarchy.

The internal divisions of the nation, combined with the Shah's top-down Westernization policies, triggered the subsequent bottom-up social revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Immigration to Iran, most notably by Afghans, dates back to at least the end of the 19th century. The rise of Sunni Pashtuns in Afghanistan triggered the exodus of numerous Shia Hazaras, an ethnic and religious minority, to Iran. Afghans who settled and integrated into Iranian society in the 19th and early 20th centuries were naturalized as Iranian citizens and came to be classified as an ethnic group known as Khavari or Barbari.

Nonetheless, the events both proceeding and immediately following the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979, which ousted the Pahlavi dynasty and the monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, in favor of an Islamic theocracy, undeniably prompted the largest collective emigration from Iran (see sidebar for more on the revolution).

Three Waves of Emigration

Emigration since 1950 can be organized into three major waves that roughly correspond to socioeconomic status and motivations for migration, including both forced and voluntary departures. Despite some degree of overlap, the three phases provide a framework for conceptualizing the global Iranian diaspora.

The first significant phase of emigration from Iran, beginning in 1950 and lasting until the 1979 revolution, was triggered by Iran’s slow economic recovery and resumption of oil production after World War II. Revenue from oil exports permitted a relatively sudden change in Iranian society from traditionalism to modernization, motivating middle- and upper-class families to send their children abroad for higher education as a means of ensuring socioeconomic security and political access upon return.

In the 1977-1978 academic year, about 100,000 Iranians were studying abroad, of whom 36,220 were enrolled in U.S. institutes of higher learning; the rest were mainly in the United Kingdom, West Germany, France, Austria, and Italy. In the 1978-1979 academic year, the number of Iranian students enrolled in the United States totaled 45,340, peaking at 51,310 in 1979-1980. According to the Institute of International Education, more Iranian students studied in the United States at this time than students from any other country.

After the revolution, not only did many of these students opt to remain in the West, but many of their relatives joined them.

Also included in this first period were families closely associated with the monarchy as members of the government, military personnel, or bankers. These royalist sympathizers fled during the early stages of the revolution, often with significant liquidated assets in hand.

Table 1. Iranian Immigrants Admitted to the United States, Canada, Germany,
the UK and Sweden: 1961 to 2005
  1961-1970 1971-1980 1981-1990 1991-2000 2001-2005
USA 10,291 46,152 154,857 112,597 55,098
Germany 7,298* 14,173 67,022 24,131 6,024**
Canada 620 3,455 20,700 41,329 25,350**
Sweden***  384 3,249 38,167 16,804 6,086
UK --- --- --- 12,665 8,640

Notes: *excludes 1961; **excludes 2005; *** In some years Swedish data was based on Iranian immigrants by place of birth while in other years it was based on place of last residence
Sources: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics; Federal Statistical Office of Germany; Sweden Statistics; Statistics Canada; UK Home Office

Finally, another population that fled in the initial phase were members of religious minorities, such as the Baha'is, and religio-ethnic groups, such as the Jews, Armenians, and Assyrians. Anticipating persecution, a disproportionate number of these marginalized populations left as soon as cracks appeared in the Pahlavi regime.

A second phase of emigration took place after the revolution. Socialist and liberal elements were the first to leave, followed by young men who fled military service and the Iran-Iraq War, followed by young women and families, escaping overly confining gender restrictions. Having a daughter was a decisive factor in a family's decision to flee since the post-revolution era forced women to wear the veil, offered decreased educational possibilities, and enforced obedience to male kin.

Because the second wave included large numbers of professionals, entrepreneurs, and academics, it accelerated the "brain drain," a term used to describe the emigration of a country's most educated and highly skilled for better opportunities in another country.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education, right before the revolution and subsequent closure of all the universities in 1980, there were 16,222 professors teaching in Iran's higher education institutions. When the universities reopened in 1982, this figure had plummeted to 9,042.

Similarly, the Iran Times estimated that one out of every three (5,000) physicians and dentists left after the revolution. In addition to the reduction of manpower, studies estimate that the flight of capital from Iran shortly before and after the revolution is in the range of $30 to $40 billion.

It is important to note that many members of both the first and second emigration waves did not consider their departure permanent. To the contrary, many locked up their homes, packed a few suitcases, and viewed leaving as a temporary sojourn from their lives back in Iran, which would resume when the revolutionary government was overturned. However, with time, the possibility of a permanent return has grown increasingly unlikely.

Finally, a more recent third wave of emigration has surfaced over the last decade, from roughly 1995 to the present. This wave consists of two very distinct populations — highly skilled individuals leaving universities and research institutions, a continuation of a previous trend, and working-class labor migrants and economic refugees, sometimes with lower education levels and less transferable skills than previous emigrants.

In the year 2000 alone, Iranians submitted 34,343 asylum applications, the highest rate since 1986. Unlike the two previous waves, this wave was caused by Iran's economic crisis, deteriorating human rights record, diminishing opportunities, and the enduring tension between reformist and conservative factions.

While some manage to leave the country through illegal methods, such as being smuggled across the Turkish border, other asylees have adopted less common approaches such as converting to Christianity, fleeing Iran as a refugee, and then legitimizing an asylum application by explaining that conversion from Islam is considered an act of apostasy and punishable according to the Islamic Republic.

At the end of 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated there were 111,684 refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other persons of concern from Iran. The countries hosting the largest populations of Iranian refugees were Germany (39,904), the United States (20,541), Iraq (9,500), the United Kingdom (8,044), the Netherlands (6,597), and Canada (6,508).

Table 2. Iranian Asylum Applications, 1995 to 2004
  1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 Total
Germany 4,314 5,264 4,490 2,955 3,407 4,878 3,455 2,642 2,049 1,374 34,828
Turkey 936 1,454 1,654 1,979 3,843 3,860 3,385 2,505 3,092 --- 22,708
United Kingdom 520 615 585 745 1,320 5,610 3,415 2,630 2,874 3,976 22,290
Netherlands 6,075 2,698 1,521 1,679 1,527 2,543 1,519 663 555 450 19,230
Austria 485 656 502 950 3,343 2,559 734 760 979 347 11,315
Canada 1,901 1,728 1,210 880 794 767 768 381 329 342 9,100
United States 498 468 811 746 778 870 944 880 503 421 6,919

Source: Governments, UNHCR. Compiled by: UNHCR, Population Data Unit.
Note: Only includes industrialized asylum countries

The distinctive characteristic of this wave is the rise of asylum applications lodged in Europe. In 2004, Iran ranked tenth among the top countries of origin for asylum seekers across Europe. Fifty-five percent of the total Iranian asylum applications in 2000 were submitted in Western European countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Austria, and the Netherlands.

In 2001 alone, there was a 300 percent increase in the number of Iranians seeking asylum in Britain. Furthermore, in 2004, Iran was the top nationality of asylum seekers to the UK, accounting for 10 percent of all applications. Preliminary observations indicate that these migrants often come from smaller provinces outside of Tehran and that they often face greater obstacles to integration in their host societies, especially in comparison to the relative successes of their more urban predecessors in those same countries.

Given that European Union countries have made it difficult to obtain asylum, Iranians who are not recognized as refugees often go to another country, remain illegally in the country where they applied, or return to Iran.

Characteristics of the Iranian Diaspora

Diasporas are rarely homogenous groups, and the Iranian diaspora is no exception. Although the exact size of the diaspora remains unknown, a common yet disputed estimate of the diaspora's size is two to four million people. However, a compilation of the most recent national censuses from major receiving countries (excluding Turkey) supports a population in the range of one million (see Table 3).

Regardless of size, the Iranian diaspora is extremely heterogeneous with respect to ethnicity, religion, social status, language, gender, political affiliation, education, legal status, and timing and motivation for departure (ranging from political to sociocultural to economic).

In terms of ethnic origin, while the majority of the Iranian diaspora are Persian in origin, there are also large communities of Azeris, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmens, and Armenians. This ethnic diversity parallels linguistic heterogeneity, with large populations of Turkish-speaking Iranians. A religious divide also exists between the majority, who are Shi'ia Muslims, and the minority groups, such as the Baha'is, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sunni Kurds.

In the aftermath of the revolution, political divisions among supporters of the former Shah, groups such as the Mujaheddin, and apolitical groups intensified the competition among different visions for the future of Iran. However, as noted above, the heterogeneity of the diaspora is not a recent expression, but rather mirrors the internal diversity long rooted in the homeland. Exploring the diaspora population in the United States, Canada, Sweden, and Israel sheds light on their highly varied characteristics and experiences.

Table 3. Top 10 Destination Countries by Size of Iranian-Born Population
United States 291,040
Canada 75,115
Germany 65,750
Sweden 53,982
Israel 51,300
United Kingdom 42,494
Netherlands 21,469
Australia 18,789
France 18,376
Armenia 15,999

Source: University of Sussex, 2000 Global Migrant Origin Database

According to the most recent rounds of government census data, the largest number of Iranians outside of Iran reside in the United States, followed by Canada, Germany, Sweden, and Israel (see Table 3); the United States is home to more than three times the number of Iranian born living in Canada, the country with the next largest Iranian-born population.

Yet it is important to note that members within the Iranian community claim their numbers are much larger than census data suggest. In the case of the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau's decennial census form does not offer a designation for individuals of Iranian descent. Consequently, it is estimated that only a fraction of the total number of Iranians are writing in their ancestry.

The Census Bureau estimates that the Iranian-American community (including the U.S.-born children of the Iranian foreign born) numbers around 330,000. However, studies using alternative statistical methods have estimated the actual number of Iranian Americans in the range of 691,000 to 1.2 million.

Given that the Iranian community in the United States is significantly larger than those in other countries, it is worth noting the distribution and characteristics of this particular population. Iranian Americans are most highly concentrated in California, which has a larger Iranian population than the next 20 states combined. Within California, most Iranians live in the Los Angeles area, dubbed Tehrangeles.

Los Angeles has become a locus for the production and distribution of images, discourses, and representations of Iran. In fact, today there are 20 television and five radio stations broadcasting in Persian from Los Angeles to Iranians in the United States and Western Europe, and even to Iran, although such broadcasts in Iran's Islamic Republic are illegal. Cultural commodities, much of which are forbidden by the Islamic state, are exported from California to Iranians in other countries and even smuggled into Iran itself.

According to the 2000 census, the Iranian ancestral group in the United States — meaning those who claim Iranian ancestry — is among the most highly educated in the country. More than one in four Iranian Americans over the age of 25 hold a graduate degree or above, the highest rate among 67 ethnic groups, according to the Iranian Studies Group. In addition, their per capita average income is 50 percent higher than that of the U.S. population overall.

Like Iranians in the United States, Iranians in Canada are a highly skilled immigrant group with relatively high levels of education. In contrast to the U.S. community, most of Canada's Iranian immigrants were admitted between 1996 and 2001. In addition to the political refugees of the second wave, in the 1990s a growing number of Iranians took advantage of Canada's point-based immigration system, migrating there as entrepreneurs and investors. In 1994, 12 percent of Iranian immigrants in Canada were entrepreneurs and investors.

According to Canada's 2001 census, the Iranian-born population increased by 34 percent between 1996 (47,410) and 2001 (71,985). Among Canadian permanent residents from Africa and the Middle East, Iran consistently ranked as the top source country between 1995 and 2004.

Flows to Sweden peaked in the second half of the 1980s. A harsher Swedish refugee policy instituted in the early 1990s reduced the number of Iranian asylum seekers. As a result, the majority of more recent immigrants to Sweden have come via family reunification. Also, in contrast to the diaspora groups in Canada and the United States, Iranians in Sweden suffer from a relatively high level of unemployment despite being highly educated and having middle-class, urban backgrounds.

According to a 1996 study, Iranians had the fourth-highest rate of unemployment among ethnic groups in Sweden, largely the result of the labor market undervaluing and/or not recognizing their education and credentials. According to the 2004 Labor Force Survey, the unemployment rate among the Iranian foreign born in Sweden was 20.4 percent.

As a result, many Iranians in Sweden have either turned to studying or self-employment. Discrimination in the labor market has been noted by the immigrants themselves as one of the greatest pushes towards Iranian self-employment in Sweden.

Unlike other receiving countries, the Iranian Jewish diaspora in Israel is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, 41 percent of Iranians living in Israel in the early 1990s immigrated there before the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948; only 15 percent were admitted between 1975 and 1991, largely as a result of religious persecution.

Remittances and Investments

Based on World Bank World Development Indicators (WDI) data, Iranian workers' annual remittances, compensation of employees, and migration transfers back to Iran increased from $536 million in 2000 to $1.2 billion in 2003 and stood at $1 billion in 2004 (see Table 4). Workers' remittances and compensation of employees are comprised of current transfers by migrant workers and wages and salaries earned by nonresident workers.

For the most part, official figures leave out all transfers occurring through informal channels. However, a 2003 International Monetary Fund paper estimated that more than half the total remittances to Iran were transmitted through a hawala system, an informal network of money dealers that offers faster and cheaper means of transfer than formal channels.

Table 4. Iranian Workers' Remittances, Compensation of Employees, and Migrant Transfers
(in U.S.$ millions), 1994 to 2004
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
1,200 1,600 658 400 680 508 536 682 851 1,178 1,032

Source: Global Economic Prospects 2006: Economic Implications of Remittances and Migration, World Bank

Additionally, the Iranian government has sought to encourage foreign direct investment in Iran through enactment of the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPPA) in 2002. In an effort to liberalize policies relating to foreign investment, the act provided legal protections for foreign enterprises equivalent to those in place for domestic enterprises; it also offered extra-legal guarantees. Under FIPPA, there is no restriction on the destination of investment and no limit on the type of foreign capital invested.

However, Iranian expatriates abroad remain wary of investing in Iran because of the regime's record of confiscating people's assets and the country's overall political instability. In 2000, the Iran Press Service reported that Iranian expatriates had invested about $200 to $400 billion in the United States, Europe, and China, but almost nothing in Iran. The Iranian government's efforts to encourage foreign investment from Iranians in the United States were thwarted in 1997 when President Bill Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting investments in Iran.

The Endurance of the Brain Drain

Twenty-seven years after the revolution, emigration of the highly skilled has intensified yet again. Though there have been periods of ebb and flow, the brain drain is one element that all of Iran's migratory waves have in common.

In January 2006, the International Monetary Fund claimed that Iran ranks highest in brain drain among 91 developing and developed countries, with an estimated 150,000 to 180,000 educated people exiting per year. According to a 1999 study, the brain drain from Iran to the United States, measured by migration rates of the individuals with tertiary education, is the highest in Asia.

The majority of those leaving are scientific scholars and university graduates. In fact, as many as four out of five of those who recently won awards in various international science Olympiads have chosen to emigrate to the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.

Among the factors contributing to the brain drain are economic well-being and better educational prospects abroad. The inability of the home country to respond to its citizens' needs, coupled with high unemployment rates and a general lack of intellectual and social security, all contribute to the brain drain. Additionally, self-censorship prevents people from thinking and writing freely, a limitation that makes both scientific and social science research extremely difficult.

The intense demand for university seats in Iran also plays a key role. Of the approximately 1.5 million people who take exams annually, only an estimated 11 percent are accepted into a university. Even after acquiring an undergraduate degree, young people find there are few jobs available. According to official statistics, of the 270,000 university graduates entering the labor market each year, an estimated 75,000 can find jobs.

In 2005, the national unemployment rate among the economically active was 11.5 percent; however, the unemployment rate among individuals under age 30 was 20.5 percent. Hidden in the statistics is massive underemployment, with the university educated frequently working in jobs well below their qualifications. Taken together with two demographic facts — 68 percent of the population was under the age of 30 according to the 1996 census and the median age in 2001 was 20.8 — the pattern of a young and highly educated brain drain is understandable.

Since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, the number of Iranians petitioning for visas to European countries and the United States has increased an estimated 20 to 30 percent. Brain drain since 2005 is likely a result of hard currency outflows from Iran following Ahmadinejad's rise to power.

As a free trade zone, Dubai has become the perfect place for Iranians to pursue business ventures that are otherwise too difficult in Iran given legislative barriers and economic conditions. In addition to investors, Dubai has attracted an estimated 9,000 Iranian students.

The impact of the brain drain on Iran is wholly catastrophic. Estimates by the Iranian Ministry of Science, Research and Technology indicate that the flight of human capital costs the government over $38 billion annually, two times the revenues received from selling oil. As a point of comparison, each inventor or scientist who leaves the country has the same economic impact as the destruction of 10 oil wells, according to a daily Iranian newspaper.

Under the provisions of a five-year development plan, the country is trying to create jobs for its unemployed population, though the results of these efforts have not yet materialized. Consequently, the country remains unable to benefit from its educated diaspora or its pool of unemployed experts at home.

Afghan and Iraqi Refugees

Ironically, since the 1979 revolution, Iran has frequently topped the list of refugee-hosting countries. At the end of 2005, UNHCR estimated that Iran was host to the third-largest refugee population in the world, with a total of 716,000 refugees.

However, at its peak in 1991, the refugee population exceeded four million, consisting of approximately three million Afghan refugees who first fled after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, as well as the 1.2 million Iraqis who left Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and the subsequent Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991 (see Figure 1). According to the UN Population Division, refugees made up more than 92 percent of Iran's international migrant stock in 1990.

Figure 1. Afghan and Iraqi Refugee Population in Iran, 1980 to 2005

Source: UNHCR, Statistical Yearbooks

According to 2005 estimates of the Statistical Center of Iran, the country's total population is 68.5 million. In the 1996 census, 80 percent of foreign nationals were citizens of Afghanistan and 18 percent were citizens of Iraq (see Figure 2); just 1.8 percent of the total population (60.1 million) claimed a foreign nationality in the 1996 census.

Figure 2. Foreign Population in Iran by Country of Citizenship, 1996

Source: Iran Statistical Centre, 1996 census

By 2002, the Ministry of Interior estimated there were some 2.57 million immigrants in Iran, of which more than 90 percent (or 2.3 million) were Afghans. Iran also hosts some 30,000 refugees of various nationalities, including Tajiks, Bosnians, Azeris, Eritreans, Somalis, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis.

Afhgan Refugees

Though Afghans have a long history of visiting Iran as migrant workers, pilgrims, or merchants, the Soviet invasion in 1979 was a turning point in Afghan migration to Iran, resulting in a population of three million refugees at its peak in 1991.

Throughout the 1980s, Iran's open-door refugee policy allowed for arriving Afghans to be granted refugee status on a prima facie basis; Afghans received "blue cards" confirming their status as mohajerin, or people who seek exile for religious reasons. Although Iran was a signatory to both the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, it did not accord Afghans the status of refugees, long regarding its hospitality to Afghan refugees as a religious and humanitarian duty rather than a legal obligation.

In theory, blue-card holders were granted indefinite permission of residence and social benefits, such as access to free education, health services, adult literacy training, and subsidies on basic essentials. In addition, refugees were permitted to work in one of 16 designated, menial occupations.

However, widespread poverty in Afghan settlements suggests that perhaps the social benefits were not duly granted to everyone. Limited international assistance to Iran for Afghan refugees was partially a result of the increased tensions between Iran and the West following the 1979 revolution and the seizing of hostages at the U.S. embassy during the same year.

As a result, Iran has shouldered most of the burden of hosting, maintaining, and absorbing its refugee population. According to 2005 UNHCR estimates, only four percent of Iran's total refugee population was housed in designated camps. According to Iranian estimates, expenditures on all refugees totaled $20 billion from 1979 to 1995.

Although UNHCR ultimately obtained some funds for Afghan refugees in Iran, the disparity between the amounts granted to Iran and Pakistan, the other major host of Afghan refugees, remained substantial throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

In fact, between 1979 and 1997, UNHCR spent more than US$1 billion on Afghan refugees in Pakistan but only $150 million on those in Iran. In 1999 alone, the Iranian government estimated the cost of maintaining its refugee population at US$10 million per day, compared with the US$18 million UNHCR allocated for all of its operations in Iran in 1999.

In the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union finally withdrew from Afghanistan, the government expected many Afghan refugees would return home. With shifting domestic, economic, and social concerns such as unemployment, Iranian law enforcement began to harass refugees, signaling a shift of Iran's refugee policy from one of reception and integration to more active intervention to prevent inflow and encourage repatriation.

Since then, Iran has made repeated efforts to document and register Afghans in Iran in preparation for repatriation, implemented several deportation campaigns, incrementally reduced services to Afghans (particularly education and medical), and legislated employment restrictions.

Since Afghans were not going home on their own, in December 1992 the Iranian government signed a three-year repatriation agreement with the government of Afghanistan and UNHCR to actively encourage return. Iran issued temporary registration cards to undocumented or newly arriving Afghan refugees, which granted them temporary legal status but also effectively placed them on a fast-track for repatriation.

Throughout much of 1993, about 600,000 Afghans returned from Iran, over 300,000 of them under the assisted repatriation program. However, with a civil war taking place in Afghanistan (1992-1996), assisted repatriation from Iran effectively came to a halt. By 1994, Iran was receiving new flows of both Afghan refugees and economic migrants.

In April 2002, after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of the Taliban, and the establishment of the Afghanistan Interim Authority (AIA), UNHCR's assisted repatriation program for Afghans returning from Iran began. Though it was initially meant to last for a year, it was later extended until March 2005 and recently again until March 2006. By September 2004, the most recent date for which numbers are available, one million Afghans had returned under the series of repatriation programs, in addition to almost 568,000 returnees who did not receive assistance.

These figures do not account for the unquantifiable backflow of returnees who came back to Iran because of difficulties they encountered while reaching their home areas. Since 60 percent of the Afghan refugees in Iran have lived there for at least 15 years, returning home is difficult, particularly given the challenges faced when dealing with the Iranian court system in order to clear up outstanding legal issues and to finalize contractual obligations. Superior health care services in Iran also discourage repatriation.

It is expected that in the coming years, the Iranian government will maintain pressure on both Afghan refugees and on UNHCR to continue the repatriation efforts. As of October 2005, fewer than one million Afghan refugees remained in Iran. They live mainly in the poorer neighborhoods of the major cities, with only two percent in camps, and they have received relatively little assistance from the international community.

Iraqi Refugees

Although Iraqi refugees come from various backgrounds, they can be divided into three main groups: Iraqi Shiite Muslim Arabs who were persecuted under Saddam Hussein, Sunni Muslim Kurds who fled Saddam's efforts to crush Kurdish autonomy, and Feili Kurds, Shiites who Saddam stripped of citizenship because their ancestors were from Iran. All fled Iraq to escape persecution under Saddam's regime.

The first Iraqi refugees arrived in the 1970s, mainly when Saddam crushed a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq. The Feili Kurds (who are Shiite, unlike most Kurds, who are Sunni) were declared Iranian by Saddam, even though Iran considered them Iraqis. The deportation of Feili Kurds continued in the 1980s during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War.

The greatest number (700,000) arrived following the Halabja crisis in 1988, when the Iraqi government used chemical weapons in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. Many members of this group returned home in 1992.

The Iran-Iraq War also started the exodus of Iraqi Arabs, mostly Shias from southern and central Iraq. It culminated in the mass movement of 1.3 million Iraqis into Iran immediately after the 1991 Gulf War when Saddam issued a crackdown on Shiite rebellions in the south. While Iraqi Shiite Arabs congregated along Iran's southwestern border, Iraqi Kurds remained mostly in the northwest.

The Iranian government has dealt with the Iraqi refugee population differently than with the Afghans. For example, while regulations passed in February 2004 restricted Afghan refugees' residence in certain cities and regions, limiting their ability to rent or own property, these rules did not apply to Iraqis.

Furthermore, in 2004, when Iran imposed new restrictions that required Afghan refugees to hold work permits and that increased sanctions on employers who hired Afghans lacking work permits, these regulations did not apply to Iraqi refugees. This differential treatment may be due to the relatively larger size and prolonged presence of the Afghan refugee population relative to the Iraqis, as well as the perceived socioeconomic differences between the two populations.

According to UNHCR, by September 2003 there were over 202,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran, composing over half of the entire Iraqi refugee population in the world. Though the majority lived in urban centers and settlements, about 50,000 were housed in 22 refugee camps, which are situated along the country's western border with Iraq.

However, with more than 80 percent of them choosing to repatriate, Iraqi refugees staying in camps in Iran have demonstrated a higher rate of departure than those who settled in urban communities throughout the country. As a result, by the end of 2004, the overall camp population had decreased from 50,000 to 8,000, with six out of the 22 camps empty and many others near empty.

Even though large numbers of Iraqis have repatriated, an entire generation of children born out of Iraqi-Iranian marriages —whose existence the authorities refuse to acknowledge — is now growing up in Iran. The illegality of marriages between Iraqis and Iranians, and the government's refusal to recognize their children point to an integration problem that the government must deal with.

Internal Migration

In addition to its international migration pattern, Iran also exhibits one of the steepest urban growth rates in the world according to the UN humanitarian information unit. According to 2005 population estimates, approximately 67 percent of Iran's population lives in urban areas, up from 27 percent in 1950. Among those living in urban areas, more than a quarter, or 12.2 million, live in the capital city, Tehran.

The Iran-Iraq War contributed to rapid urban growth, as millions of IDPs headed for large towns and ultimately settled there. Another factor contributing to urban growth is a lack of investment (and hence few jobs) in rural areas due to the government's industrialization policies.

In an effort to limit the high rates of urban growth, in 2003 the government launched a "reverse-migration initiative" in Iran's largest province, Khorasan. The five-year plan intends to regenerate rural areas by investing in local industries, agriculture, and public services. Depending on the success of this pilot scheme, the initiative may be implemented countrywide.

For the time being, mass urbanization is partly to blame for the increased prevalence of slum areas, high unemployment rates, poor public services, and a depressed economy.

Looking Ahead

The migration story of Iran is not limited solely to the migrants and refugees themselves. Rather, through the popularity of Iranian cinema and the explosion of virtual communication, Iranians in Iran are increasingly connected to those in the diaspora and beyond.

One of the most widespread and effective means of group expression for Iranians has become the creation of a virtual community through chat rooms and blog websites. Estimates suggest that Iran has more than 75,000 bloggers, making Persian the fourth most widely used language on blogs in the world. According to a June 2004 report by Reporters Without Borders, the Internet has grown faster in Iran than in any other Middle Eastern country since 2000.

In particular, virtual communities will continue to play a key role in connecting the youth of Iran — an estimated two-thirds of the population — to their counterparts in the diaspora, many of whom were either born outside of Iran or left at a young age. The growth of this new social phenomenon will likely have an impact on future developments in the Islamic Republic.

In the coming months and years, the Iranian government will need to concentrate on effective methods of encouraging investments and remittances back into Iran. It will also need to make more of a concerted effort in preventing further flight of the highly skilled.

With the looming threat of organized international sanctions ahead, the government may need to focus on businesses beyond the petroleum sector. In all of these efforts and more, the disapora will undeniably play a significant role.


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