x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Brain drain takes toll on Iran's economy

Stagnant economy, few job opportunities and limited potential for growth are forcing a rising number of young people to emigrate.

Rahele Movahedi, an Iranian student who has a Canadian visa, says going abroad is the only choice for her.
Rahele Movahedi, an Iranian student who has a Canadian visa, says going abroad is the only choice for her.

Tehran // Rahele Movahedi does not find it strange that she and so many of her friends live in Montreal. "There we can get jobs, here we can't," she said. Ms Movahedi, 27, is back in her hometown of Tehran for a year doing a Master's degree in Linguistics from Azad University and once finished will return to Montreal to do a PhD and find a job. "I'll miss my mom and my family so much. I find it so hard to live without them," she said in a cafe in the Elburz Mountains overlooking Tehran. "But what other choice do I have?" Ms Movahedi is one of an estimated 150,000 Iranians who leave their country each year - according to a 2006 IMF report - to pursue professional and academic opportunities abroad, the vast majority of them young and educated. The Iranian media has quoted government officials as saying the number could be upwards of 200,000. It is a silent exodus that is costing Iran between US$35 billion (Dh129bn) and $50bn every year according to government estimates and is taking a toll on the country's development. While Ms Movahedi is fluent in English and French and already has a Canadian visa, a glimpse of the number of Iranians studying English to qualify for visas to such countries as the US, Canada and Australia gives an idea of the scale of the outflux. In a brightly lit classroom at the Sorkhan language centre in a north Tehran suburb, a dozen graduates in their 20s sit around a rectangular table preparing for IELTS and TOEFL English exams. Among them are doctors, engineers and scientists - even a sedimental geologist. "We love Iran and want to stay," said Mona Ranak, a graphic designer who is applying to get an Australian visa. "We leave because of the situation here - the economy, the education. Life." Zahra Honarmend, a classmate and an industrial engineer who is applying for a visa to Holland, agreed. "I would love to stay but there is nothing for me here," she said. It is a scenario that Davoud Moosavi, the director of studies at Sorkhan, has seen every day for the 13 years he has worked here. "People looking to further their career see no hope in Iran," said Mr Moosavi, 51, who has two brothers living in Britain and who lived there himself for more than 20 years. "There is no job security and unemployment is high. These graduates want some stability for their future." Mr Moosavi said Sorkhan takes about 1,600 students a year, though the Respina language centre a few streets over registers almost that many a month. There are hundreds of these centres around Tehran. The emigration of educated Iranians is not a recent phenomenon. In 1975, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi created the Iranian People's Resurgence Party and asked all Iranians to join, warning those who refused to leave the country. Academics, political activists and others left in the thousands. The Islamic revolution four years later sparked another exodus, which continued with the late Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamisation of the educational system beginning in 1980 and the subsequent closure of Iran's universities for three years. The eight-year war with Iraq also saw a stream of students, graduates and professionals flee the violence and military service. Iranians leaving today complain of a stagnant economy, few job opportunities and limited potential for progress within the jobs that do exist. The government says the unemployment rate in Iran is 12 per cent, though analysts say it is much higher. Iranian officials blame international sanctions for harming the country's economy and diverting investment and point to the well-documented trend of western companies and academic institutes poaching the country's top talent. The continuous emigration from Iran has given rise to an Iranian diaspora of at least four million according to various estimates. And the number of Iranians occupying top jobs across every professional sector in the US and Europe is staggering, whether they are running neurological research institutes, breaking ground in chemical engineering or charting space exploration with Nasa. "These countries are getting a free ride from the education and expertise of the Iranian elite," said Akbar Torbat, an Iranian professor of finance at California State University. "Most of the Iranian immigrants in the US are working in fields such as education, engineering, medicine, and other professional services. Their knowledge, expertise, and wealth are needed to modernise Iran." And in addition to the thousands that leave and have left are the many thousands more who stay and take jobs below or not matching their qualifications, known as underemployment. "An even bigger story than unemployment is underemployment," said Karim Sadjapour, an Iran expert and associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. "There are tens of thousands of young architects and engineers selling pizza and driving taxis in Iran." As for Ms Movahedi, her goal is to eventually return to Iran if and when the job market improves. "I love my country and I want to settle down here," she said. "But when I'll be able to do that - who knows?" jspollen@thenational.ae