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Iran: A Vast Diaspora Abroad and Millions of Refugees at Home
By Shirin Hakimzadeh
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 producting 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
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
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.
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.
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 US Central Intelligence Agency.
The combination of these disparate factors divided Iranian society into roughly
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.
- 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
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 US 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 US 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 US-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 US population
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
US 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,
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 $1 billion
in 2004 (see Table 4). Workers' remittances and compensation of employees
are comprised of current transfers by migrant workers and wages and salaries
earned by nonresident workers.
For the most part, official figures leave out all transfers occurring through informal channels. However, a 2003 International Monetary Fund paper estimated that more than half the total remittances to Iran were transmitted through a hawala system, an informal network of money dealers that offers faster and cheaper means of transfer than formal channels.
Table 4. Iranian Workers' Remittances, Compensation of Employees, and Migrant Transfers
(in US$ millions), 1994 to 2004
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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 US 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.
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
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 US-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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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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