Exploring Iranian Migration: Reimagining the Brain Drain

Mainstream perceptions in the global Iranian community regarding Iranian migration revolve around one concern: that for whatever reason, Iran seems to be hemorrhaging its best and brightest young people as they leave to foreign countries in search of better opportunities.

These concerns are echoed in public discourse, and are also reflected in some of the ongoing discussions of migrant and refugee movements that occasionally make headlines. Indeed for many Iranians, the lamentation of how the Iranian state is forcing educated youth to leave seems to have become a sort of folk sociology that the community accepts. But how does the current perception of Iranian emigration stand up to more nuanced understandings of mobility in the current age?

As a term, “brain drain” is usually used to refer to large-scale human capital flight that is particularly made up of young educated people. The term was first used in the aftermath of World War II, when many intellectuals fled Europe for the United States. Exoduses such as these are presumably detrimental to the long-term development of a country that is “losing” members of its intellectual class. Emigration seems to become brain drain when the imagined consequences are simply put, scary. 

An infographic from Shargh magazine in Iran regarding the brain drain phenomenon.

This fear of migration is akin to the concept of a moral panic: when a society is worried about a phenomenon in disproportion to its actual repercussions, in fact larger anxieties and values are expressing themselves. In Iran, the constant concern of the movement of youth out of the country speaks strongly to anxieties society may have about the country’s future. What is more symbolic of a country’s future than its young people, and what could be more ominous than their departure?

There is no denying that in its recent history, the country has been witness to a host of large-scale emigrations. The 1979 revolution saw the creation of an Iranian diaspora, which included the large scale emigration of certain minority populations such as Armenians, Assyrians, and Jews. This dovetailed with the flight of refugees from the Iran-Iraq war, which in turn led many Iranian communities to establish themselves abroad. But beyond these specific instances of emigration, a wider fear of youth leaving the country has pervaded social consciousness since then.

The IMF and other sources have discussed the supposed Iranian brain drain. A variety of statistics have placed Iran high on the list of so-called “developing” countries that suffer high rates of emigration of highly skilled and highly educated individuals. But how legitimate is this worry? Many of the articles online referring to Iran’s brain drain are actually quoting a 2009 IMF study on brain drain that some critics say does not exist. The Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), on the other hand considers Iran a victim of brain drain as over 20% of its nationals living abroad have higher education degrees. But with Iran already having a high rate of college education, it begs the question of why this is necessarily a “drain” if there could be enough college graduates staying behind as well.

This points to one question that underlies the brain drain debate: can we actually define when the problem exists, or does the label create the problem in the first place?

Despite the association between Iran and brain drain, the country’s net migration rate is only about -.08%. This number is a simple calculation of how many people leave the country relative to how many people immigrate to the country, but it is useful to show how small the scale of this emigration “panic” truly is. Iran is nearly in the middle of all countries when ranked by emigration rates. To give a better idea of where other countries stand, neighboring country Turkey has a net migration rate of .46%, whereas the lower end of the list has countries like Armenia at -5.8%, El Salvador at -8.44%, and Somalia at -9.5%. The demographic alarm bells seem to have little reason to go off.

A screenshot of Iran's emigration rate in comparison to countries with similar rates. Data from the World Factbook.
A screenshot of Iran’s emigration rate in comparison to countries with similar rates. Data from the World Factbook.

What is too much migration, and what is too little? As a study by Karimi and Gharaati suggests, the perception of Iranian emigration is difficult to discuss without taking prevailing social and political trends into consideration.

Much has been written in recent years about how migration is either stigmatized or lauded depending on who moves, and where they move to. Just as the Global Northerner heading abroad for work is an “expat” and not a migrant, many often assume that an educated individual leaving a less affluent country is a traitor, or at the very least participating in the depletion of their home country’s development potential. In this conception, not all mobilities are allowed to be equal.

In any situation, migration cannot be explained with just a summary statistic. When a community or population discusses migration as an issue, the process often says more about who is speaking rather than who is being spoken about. To put simply: the fact that Iranians talk about brain drain as if it was a uniquely huge Iranian problem suggests that brain drain is a proxy for Iranian’s anxieties about the state of the country, rather than actual empirical evaluation of the country’s migration.

As Karimi and Gharaati note in the aforementioned study, different sides of the Iranian political spectrum have ascribed a variety of different interpretations to the high rates of emigration in recent decades. Whereas the religious right described emigrating Iranians as traitors to the religious and moral values of the state, reformist politicians often attempted to empathize with young people and claim that economic difficulties and the strict Islamic practices imposed by the state were encouraging educated youth to leave.

In the Iranian diaspora, educated Iranian émigrés are a similarly polarizing issue. Just as many elite universities are known for accepting Iranian scholars, students, and post-docs, the recent spate of heavy sanctions on Iran led to controversial decisions by various universities to terminate Iranian students’ attempts at studying certain subjects or to even attend university in the first place.

An infographic exploring Iran’s brain drain. Research suggests that women may be more likely to emigrate than their male counterparts. Via Slate

The fear and obsession with Iranian brain drain is ultimately the product of anxieties about Iranian society. It is very easy to paint an oversimplified and dualist picture of Iran in which a dysfunctional state is forcing young people out. But how does this picture deal with those who choose to stay, or even those who ultimately choose to return?

The unfortunate part of this fear-based conception is that it muddies a variety of debates: it becomes difficult to talk about migration honestly, and even more difficult to discuss how emigration has complex effect on a society that are not simply good or bad.

The scholarship on brain drain is evolving even if the mainstream debate is not. Recent literature in migration scholarship suggests how brain drain as a concept should be replaced by brain gain: the idea that letting educated and ambitious individuals emigrate will actually produce a flow of knowledge back to their home country that benefits those who stay behind as well. Who is to say that educated migrants would not return to their home countries to help aid in development, if only states made that choice easier to make? This is not to again oversimplify the solution, but to suggest that this debate can be re-imagined if only strict binaries and panic-based narratives could be overcome.

Until the concept of brain drain is abandoned and space is created for more nuanced conversations about migration, perceptions of Iranian migration will continue to reproduce the same doomsday stories about fleeing youth. To restart this debate and consider new possibilities for how to embrace human mobility, brain drain needs to be put to rest as a concept and be replaced with more nuanced understandings of how and why people move.



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