Iran Facing Dangerous Brain Drain

An increasing number of young Iranian professionals are emigrating in search of work, despite the obstacles to obtaining work permits in developed nation. It's a brain drain with significant economic and social consequences for the Islamic Republic.

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Now nearly 70 percent of the people living in Iran are under 30. Many have graduated from college but are unemployed, so many are trying to leave. This brain drain is having economic and social consequences. Nazanin Rafsanjani reports.

NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Here's what Mohammed Bahavi(ph) did to get his engineering degree: He graduated at the top of his high school class; he spent a year preparing for the extremely competitive nationwide college entrance exam; he received a top score and landed a coveted university spot. Then he spent four years earning his degree. And after all that came the hard part.

Mr. MOHAMMED BAHAVI: There's no job here.

RAFSANJANI: Mohammed lived in a fishing village on the Caspian Sea called Anzali. It's lush and beautiful, but there are problems here. The sea is heavily polluted, heroin abuse is growing, and for people like Mohammed, there are no jobs. For a while, Mohammed worked as an engineer at the Port of Anzali. He was laid off a year ago, and has been looking for work ever since.

And so, he recently decided to take a step that a lot of people in his situation have taken.

Mr. BAHAVI: All the (unintelligible) people are going to Europe or Japan. Just emigrate for getting job, finding job, you know.

RAFSANJANI: The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said Iran is facing a potentially catastrophic loss of its professional class. Even Iran's government - usually not quick to admit internal problems - has acknowledged that up to 200,000 college graduates leave the country each year. And for every person who wants to get out of Iran, a family is left behind.

Fathi Bahavi(ph) has two sons in college, one of whom wants to leave the country. She and her husband are trying to help him do that, but it's a long shot - a very expensive one.

Ms. FATHI BAHAVI: (Through translator) It's not possible right now. He wouldn't get a visa. He'd have to do it illegally, and that requires money. He also might get deported and sent back here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BAHAVI And we're just workers. We don't make a lot of money. In order to help him pay for this, we'd have to sell our house, and then where would we live?

RAFSANJANI: The problem with leaving Iran isn't on the Iranian side. The Tehran government does not put obstacles in the path of young people seeking to emigrate. The problem is that other countries don't necessarily want them, either. Most developed countries won't even grant a tourist visa to a young Iranian, let alone work papers.

Twenty-five-year-old Kimia(ph) is trying to get a visa to go to Germany and continue her studies. This is the second time she's applied. Her application was denied last time, and if she's turned down again, she says she'd considered doing something she's tried to avoid until now. She says she'd marry someone she barely knows, someone with German citizenship.

KIMIA (Iranian Student): (Through translator) I don't want to get married. First, I'd like to go and see it for myself, see if I can even live there. I want to study there and be by myself for a while before I get married.

RAFSANJANI: Kimia says she wouldn't even consider leaving Iran if she could just find a job here.

KIMIA: (Through translator) A person wants to stay in their own country. If I go there, I'll never be able to progress the way I'd like because I'll always be a foreigner, especially at this age. But I tell myself that maybe there I'll be successful, and my children will benefit from that success. Not here. I have no future here.

RAFSANJANI: Traditionally, an Iranian household almost always consists of grandparents, parents, children, as well as aunts and uncles. So a whole generation of people moving abroad is disruptive to families, as well as the economy.

Kardia Assadi(ph) is 65 years old. He's a fisherman. He has a son working in southern Iran and another who's unemployed. Assadi sums up the situation with a poem.

Mr. KARDIA ASSADI (Iranian): (Foreign language spoken)

RAFSANJANI: The lines of the poem are a father cares for his son when his son is young, so that the son cares for the father when the father is old. Now, Assadi says, he can't stop caring for his children. And chances are, they'll never be able to care for him.

For NPR News, I'm Nazanin Rafsanjani.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Rafsanjani went to Iran as part of the international reporting project.

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