An overview of Iran Migration Outlook 2022

Released Date
2022-12-31 | 16:58:00

An overview of Iran Migration Outlook 2022


The status of Iran in terms of the key indicators of international migration

An overview of Iran Migration Outlook 2022

The status of Iran in terms of the key indicators of international migration

The population of Iranian migrants in the world

-According to the latest available data (2021), there were 281 million migrants in the world in 2020, comprising 3.6% of the world population.

-According to the latest data (2020), 1.8 million Iranians (2.23% of the population of the country) live abroad. According to domestic sources (the High Council of Iranian Affairs Abroad), this number is 4.04 million people, but it is not verifiable by international sources.

-The number of Iranian migrants was 820,000 in 1990, and reached 1.8 million in 2020. This shows a 2.2 fold increase in the number of Iranian migrants over the past 30 years.

-Iranians comprise almost 1.07% of the world population; meanwhile, the ratio of Iranian migrants to global migrants has increased from 0.54% in 1990 to 0.70% in 2020 (still below the ratio of Iranians to the world population). Considering the share of Iranians to the world population, it can be seen that the ratio of Iranian migrants to global migrants has always been below 1% over the past 30 years.

-According to international sources (World Bank and UNDESA), the UAE, United States, and Canada were the top three destinations of Iranian-born migrants in the world, hosting 454, 387, and 166 thousand Iranians respectively. [MK1] 

-In the EU, the four countries of Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and France are currently hosting most Iranian-born migrants according to UN statistics. Based on these statistics in 2020, Germany ranked first by hosting 152,590 Iranian-born migrants, and Sweden, the Netherlands, and France ranked 2nd to 4th by hosting 79,363, 34,809, and 26,069 Iranian migrants, respectively.

-In 2020, Germany, France, and Italy were the European countries that received most visa applications from Iranians and issued the highest number of Schengen visas for them. Thus, Germany was the first choice of Iranians who migrated to Europe.

-Outside the EU, Turkey and the U.K. each hosted approximately 84 thousand Iranian-born migrants.

-Australia is a major destination for Iranian migrants of all categories (including labor migrants), and the total number of Iranians residing in Australia has been increasing over the past few years.

-Table 3[MK2]  has been designed by calculating the number of Iranian migrants according to both international and domestic statistical sources. Since the data presented by the High Council of Iranian Affairs Abroad were not compatible with international data, the two sources were presented separately for the purpose of comparison.

-The statistics presented by the World Bank and the UN were combined, and the data of the World Bank were used in cases where no UN data were available. Combining the international data sources indicated that the number of Iranian migrants in the world is approximately 1,869,000.


The status of labor and economic migration in Iran and around the world

The global status:

-The number of labor migrants was estimated to be around 169 million people in 2019 according to the data presented by the ILO; 41.5% of these migrants were female and 58.5% were male.

-The participation rate of migrants in the labour force is higher than native populations; this rate has been 69% in 2019, 70% in 2017, and 72.5% in 2013.

-66.2% of international labour migrants are employed in the service sector compared to 26.7% in the industrial and 7.1% in the agricultural sectors.

-The regions of Europe (northern, southern, and western), North America, and Arabic countries are the three main recipients of labor migrants; they have collectively employed 60.6% of international labour migrants.

-High-income countries host 67.4% of labor migrants.

-Global markets, particularly the market for labor migrants, have been seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

-ILO has estimated that 255 million full-time jobs were lost in 2020 in terms of the total number of reduced hours due to loss of a job or decreased work hours. 

-In 2020, labor migrants’ income has shrunk by 4.4% of the global GDP of 2019.

-The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated that the real growth rate of the global GDP in 2020 was -3.3%.

-Inflow and outflow of labor migrants to and from many Asian countries significantly decreased due to the spread of the coronavirus and the measures taken to contain the pandemic.

-Migrants’ remittances in 2020 decreased by 2.4% compared to 2019.

-The policies concerning labor force migration in many sending and receiving countries were affected during the pandemic. Policies such as increasing the ratio of native workers to migrant workers in Arabic countries, providing financial support for labor migrants in New Zealand and Thailand, and renewing the residency permits of labor migrants in Russia and Japan were some of the policies implemented in receiving countries in reaction to the circumstances. Moreover, supporting the families of labour migrants can be regarded as a measure taken by certain countries of origin, including the Philippines, to support their labour migrants abroad.

-Some labor migrants who were employed in key positions and played a significant role in the fight against the pandemic (e.g., healthcare workers) gained prime importance in host countries.

-Host countries adopted flexible plans and policies to keep and recruit international migrants in this section of their workforce.

The status of Iran:

-Economic or labor migration is the most important type and channel of migration for Iranians. Surveys conducted by IMOBS show that many migrations that take place through international student mobility or asylum-seeking channels have economic reasons and motivations.

-The data extracted from the surveys conducted by IMOBS indicate that the migration aspiration has increased among professional groups and creators of start-up companies over the past few years; the economic conditions of this period have intensified such aspiration.

-The information regarding temporary or permanent visas obtained by Iranians in the main destination countries shows that employment-based visas in the U.S., Canada, the E.U., and Australia are issued less than educational, family reunification, and humanitarian visas. Such discrepancy between the motivations for migration and channels that actualize it indicates the limitation of migration channels for Iranians.

The status of student migration in Iran and around the world

The global status

-The total number of students in higher education globally was 227 million people in 2018, and international students comprised only 2.4% of this population.

-Global data indicate that the number of international students has increased from 2 million people in 2000 to 5.5 million people in 2018.

-The number of international students increased by 67% from 2008 to 2018. It is anticipated that the population of international students will double by 2030 and reach 10.2 million people if it continues to grow at the same annual rate of 5.1% (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2021).

-Over the past few years, the spread of the coronavirus was a global shock and slowed students’ international mobility. As a result, the rate of international enrolments decreased, and universities that relied heavily on their international students suffered significant financial losses.

-North America and Western Europe have historically been popular destinations for international students. In 2018, 51 percent of international students chose these regions as their destination.

-The trend of students’ international mobility over the past 10-15 years indicates that Western countries are no longer the sole popular destination for international students. Factors such as nationalist movements, stricter anti-immigration laws, increased importance of cultural and geographical proximities, and the emergence of more economical options have led to the emergence of new educational destinations in Asia (particularly China).

-The U.S., U.K., Canada, China, and Australia comprise the top 5 destinations for international students in 2020.

-Since the countries with the highest population of outbound international students are located in Asia (i.e., China and India), 27% of the total population of international students (around 1.5 million) come from Asia and Oceania.

-China, India, Germany, Vietnam, and South Korea were the top 5 countries of origin for international students in 2018.

The status of Iran (migration of Iranian students)

-The number of Iranian migrant students has increased gradually alongside the total number of Iranian students and the population of international students. It has increased from 19,000 students in 2003 to 56,000 students in 2018.

-The growth rate of Iranian migrant students has been slower compared to the growth rate of international students overall; thus, the ratio of Iranian migrant students to the total population of international students has decreased from around 1.3% in 2012 and to around 1% in 2018.

-The ratio of Iranian international students to the Iranian domestic students did not change considerably from 2000 to 2018 (despite the significant increase in the total population of Iranian students) and went from around 1% in 2000 to around 1.5% in 2018.

-In terms of the number of outbound international students, the global ranking of Iran jumped from 29 in 2003 to 11 in 2012, which is the most significant leap in the status of Iran in terms of sending international students over the past two decades.

-During 2012-2018, the population of Iranian international students was fixed around 50,000, experiencing negligible change; accordingly, Iran’s ranking in terms of the number of migrant students dropped to 19.

-Factors such as higher IRR-to-USD exchange rates and the consequent increase in the costs of educational migration, limitations in the issuance of visas for Iranian students by the U.S. government, and the COVID-19 pandemic have kept the population of Iranian migrant students in the U.S. relatively stable over the past few years. These factors in turn increased the number of Iranian students in countries with more lenient visa regulations such as Turkey, Germany, Canada, and Italy.

-The U.S., Turkey, Germany, Italy, and Canada are the top 5 destinations for Iranian students.

-The number of Iranian students in the U.S. was 11,451 in 2019, comprising 1% of the population of international students in this country.

-Most Iranian students (around 75%) in U.S. universities study in post-graduate (Master’s and Ph.D.) programs, and more than half study in engineering majors.

The general status of permanent residency, migration, and return for top participants of Academic Olympiads and the Iranian university entrance exam

Analyzing the data obtained from the Iranian Department of Immigration and Passports from the period of 2001- 2020 indicates that 56.6% of the medalists of student Olympiads, 69.1% of the members of Iran's National Elites Foundation, and 78.3% of the top ranks (1-1000) of the national university entrance exam still live in Iran. [MK3] 

Accordingly, the largest share of migrants belonged to Olympiad medalists (37.2%), and the members of Iran's National Elites Foundation and top ranks of the national university entrance exam followed with a 25.5% and 15.4% migrant share respectively.

Meanwhile, 4.4% of the Olympiad medalists, 3.7% of the members of Iran's National Elites Foundation, and 2.6% of the top ranks of the national university entrance exam who were previously abroad have returned to Iran.

The status of Iran (foreign students in Iran)

-Though the population of international students has increased in Iran over the past decade, the current population of foreign students in the country does not meet the aims of the Sixth Iranian Development Plan which pointed to the registration of 75,000 foreign students.

-The number of foreign students experienced an 8-fold increase during 2011-2021, going from 5,485 students in 2011 to 44,350 students in 2021.

-The ratio of foreign students to the total population of students in Iran increased from 0.15% in 2011 to 1.39% in 2021.

-Afghan and Iraqi students make up the largest populations of foreign students in Iran, having a 46% and 24% share respectively. Students from these two countries comprised 69% of the total population of international students in Iran in 2019. Lebanese (3%), Syrian (2%) and Chinese (2%) students followed.

-The majority of foreign students in Iranian universities studied in Bachelor’s and Master’s programs. In 2019, 55% of them studied in undergraduate programs, while 31% completed their Master’s degree.

-In Iran, 43% of the international students are registered in the Islamic Azad University, 31% in the universities of the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology, 9% in private higher education institutions, and 8% in the universities of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education.

The status of Iran in the market of students’ international mobility (the net index of international students’ circulation)

According to the latest accredited and internationally comparable data, the status of Iranian migrant students in terms of different indicators has been illustrated in the table below[MK4] .

The return migration of highly-educated Iranians increased considerably in the period of 2015 to 2021. The data obtained from the Iranian Vice-presidency for Science and Technology show that the number of highly-educated Iranians who returned to the country from 2016 to spring 2021 equals 1,989 people, which is significant given the economic difficulties experienced in this period.

The increased number of international students in Iran and the number of highly-educated Iranian return migrants improved the net index of brain circulation in Iran from -0.39 in 2010 to -0.24 in 2018.

The population of Iranian students in top universities of the U.S. and the world

A topic that has always attracted interest in discussions of international migration in the context Iran is the quality of migrant Iranian students and specialists. The widespread quantitative approaches have been criticized in this view. An index to assess the quality of migrant Iranian students according to international statistics is the ratio of Iranian students to the total number of students in the top universities of the world. Thus, looking at the absolute and relative numbers of Iranian students in the top 10 universities of the U.S. (all among the top 20 universities of the world according to the QS 2020 ranking) can somehow elucidate the qualitative status of Iranian students abroad. The following table illustrates the distribution of Iranian students in the top 10 universities of the U.S. It can be observed that the number of Iranian students in the top 10 American universities increased slightly from 201 students in 2013 to 240 students in 2015. However, the number decreased slightly from 240 in 2015 to 229 in 2018.

The following chart illustrates the population of Iranian students in the top U.S. universities compared to students from a selected group of countries. If the “number of students in the top 10 U.S. universities” is considered, Iran ranks 10th for sending students to the U.S. with China, India, and South Korea coming at the top of the list. If “the ratio of the students in the top 10 U.S. universities to the total population of international students” is considered, less than 0.5% of migrant Iranian students are studying in the top universities of the U.S., confirming the same ranking (10th place) for Iran in this regard. The ratio of Iranian students in the top universities to total population of migrant students didn’t change much from 2014 to 2018 and decreased from around 0.5% in 2014 to around 0.45% in 2018. The same index increased slightly for China with its considerable stock of migrant students (more than 900,000 students), going from 1.6% in 2014 to 1.66% in 2018. Analyzing the index showed that South Korea, the U.K., and Australia have the largest shares of international students in the top 10 U.S. universities.

The map of the distribution of Iranian students around the globe

The following map shows the distribution of Iranian students in different countries (top 10 destinations). As evident on the map, the main destinations of Iranian students include North America, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. The U.S. has always been the first choice for Iranian migrant students. It is expected that more students will register in U.S. universities during the Biden administration because of the removal of limitations enacted by President Trump. Germany, Turkey, and Canada rank next as the favorite destinations of Iranian migrant students. Limitations in the issuance of U.S. visas for Iranian students over the past few years, easier visa procedures in other destinations, and more economical educational programs in countries such as Turkey, Germany, Italy, and Canada have been some of the motivations leading Iranian students to study in non-American universities.

The status of forced and asylum-related migration in Iran and around the world

The global status:

-Forced and asylum-related migration changed significantly in 2020. Most displaced people were trapped within their national borders due to travel restrictions and border control measures. Thus, the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) increased considerably in 2020.

-The number of newly-registered asylum claims reduced by half in 2020 compared to 2019. A quarter of the newly-registered asylum applicants around the world came from Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Syria. The number of newly-registered Iranian asylum claims also reduced by half in 2020. It seems that the easing of travel restrictions in the coming year will increase the number of new asylum claims around the world.

- By the end of 2020, the largest population of refugees in the world were from Syria (6,690,000 people), Venezuela (4,027,000 people), and Afghanistan (2,595,000 people). In the same period, 134,767 Iranian refugees were registered, and this made Iran the 22nd country in the world in terms of the number of refugees (UNHCR Data Finder).

-By the end of 2020, the major hosts of refugees in the world included Turkey (3,652,000), Colombia (1,731,000), and Pakistan (1,439,000 people). Iran ranked 10th in the world by hosting more than 800,000 refugees (UNHCR Data Finder). The ranking of Iran went down from 6th in 2019 to 10th due to the decreased number of refugees in the country. The most important reason for this reduction is the presentation of updated data by the Iranian government. In addition, some asylum-seekers have managed to change their asylum-seeking status and receive passports over the past few years.

- By the end of 2020, the largest populations of asylum-seekers were from Venezuela (851,119 people), Iraq (240,695 people), and Afghanistan (238,791 people). Iran ranked 14th in the world with 77,217 asylum-seekers (UNHCR Data Finder).

-Given to the security-related developments in Afghanistan and Taliban’s takeover of  the country in 2021, it is possible that the number of IDPs or asylum-seekers from Afghanistan to neighboring countries (including Iran) and Europe will increase.

The status of Iran:

-In 2020, 15,333 new asylum claims were registered by Iranians in different countries.

-In 2020, 861 Iranian refugees were naturalized in other countries. In addition, 394 Iranian refugees were resettled in third countries.

-In 2020, the acceptance rate of Iranian asylum claims (First instance decisions) in European countries decreased to the lowest figure in the past six years. The majority of asylum seekers whose applications are rejected either continue to live illegally and secretly in the destination countries or leave for other destinations. Conducting more research on the fate of irregular Iranian migrants is essential.

-The number of refugees in Iran came down by around 200,000 people in 2020 compared to 2019 and reached 800,000 people. It should be noted that the number of refugees in Iran had not been updated in the UNHCR database over the past 5 years. The reduction of the number of refugees residing in Iran led the country to rank 10th in the world in terms of hosting international refugees. In the past four decades, Iran’s hosting of international refugees has always been noted and commended by the international community. One reason the number of refugees in Iran has decreased is due to the policy of changing the status of some refugees (e.g., refugee students in higher education) to passport holders.

The status of Iran in terms of return migration (reverse migration)

-The return migration of highly-educated Iranians had not been formally surveyed before 2015; so, no accurate and comprehensive data are available for the previous years. Nevertheless, different perspectives have existed in this regard[1].

-Over the past decade, the importance of the return migration of highly-educated Iranians has been highlighted. A program of cooperation with non-resident Iranian specialists and scientists was formally implemented and executed by the Iranian Vice-presidency for Science and Technology and the Center for International Science and Technology Interactions in 2015 to facilitate their return.

- The program of cooperation with non-resident Iranian specialists and scientists encouraged some experts to return and maintained communications with some migrant specialists. The number of highly-educated return migrants increased sharply in the early days of the program up to 2016, and more slowly ever since. Overall, 1989 highly-educated Iranian migrants have returned to their country by April 2021. There number of women in this batch is 330. Moreover, the program maintained communications with 864 highly-educated Iranian migrants.

-The highly-educated Iranian migrants mainly returned from North America and Western Europe. They mostly majored in engineering fields, particularly electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering.

The status of Iran in terms of the Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI)

The Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) was introduced in 2013 to compare the potential of countries in the race for talents. Talent competitiveness refers to a set of policies and procedures that enables a country to develop, recruit, and strengthen the human capital that will result in productivity. The index provides decision-makers and politicians with valuable information and analyses to develop strategies concerning brain gain, removal of related challenges, and attain competitive advantages in the global market. The report is issued annually by the European Institution of Business Management. The GTCI is an input-output model that presents a hybrid analysis of what each country does for its talents (input) and what is observed as the consequence of that (output). The input consists of four components including enabling, attracting, growing, and retaining, while the output consists of vocational and technical skills and global knowledge skills (GTCI, 2020).

According to the results of the GTCI report (2020), top scores are still dominated by developed and high-income countries, and a significant correlation exists between GDP per capita and the GTCI score. In addition, European countries occupy the majority of top places: 17 out of the top 25 countries are European. Switzerland ranked first similar to the past few years, with the U.S. and Singapore following. The non-European countries in the top 25 included Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, and the UAE. The following table[MK5]  illustrates the top 10 countries in terms of the GTCI 2020 scores.

The results of GTCI 2020 indicated that Iran scored 32.68 (out of 100) and ranked 102nd (among 132 countries). More countries have been added to the ranking since 2013[2], and this has improved the score of Iran from 2013 to 2020. The following table [MK6] indicates the status of Iran in terms of GTCI and its sub-indicators during 2013-2020.

From a regional perspective, Iran ranked 7th among the top 10 countries of Central and Southern Asian countries. Kazakhstan (54), India (54), Sri Lanka (83), Tajikistan (84), Kirgizstan (91), and Bhutan (92) ranked higher than Iran, while Pakistan (106), Nepal (121), and Bangladesh (124) ranked lower. In addition, comparing Iran with selected countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region points to the weak status of the country. The following chart [MK7] illustrates the overall status of Iran in comparison to selected MENA countries in terms of the overall index and its sub-indicators.

The status of Iran in terms of the Potential Net Migration Index

-Gallup has regularly conducted surveys to assess the potential for migration and population changes in 160 countries since 2005. The most recent survey of the institute, which focused on the potential of an increase in the number of adult migrants in case of the removal of all migration restrictions (referred to as Potential Net Migration Index) was published in 2018.

-The importance of the Potential Net Migration Index is that it illustrates the attitudes of citizens of each country concerning migration. Moreover, it assists policymakers in making active and effective plans for the management of migration of human resources or providing the grounds for the recruitment of necessary human resources from other countries. The index is also important due to the universality of the data. They have been collected from more than 150 countries, and no comparable index is available concerning migration.

-The most recent survey of Gallup was conducted in the period of 2015-2017 by making direct or telephone interviews with almost half a million adults in 150 countries. The obtained data were used to measure the Potential Net Migration Index, and the results were presented on the website of the institute. Two other practical and useful indicators were also introduced and calculated under this general index: The Potential Net Brain Gain Index and the Potential Net Youth Migration Index. The former measures the potential for the migration of educated people (people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher), while the latter calculates the potential for migration of youth aged between 15 and 29.

-The most recent global survey conducted by Gallup indicates that Iran scored -16% in terms of the Potential Net Migration Index, -27% in terms of the Potential Net Brain Gain Index, and -19% in terms of the Potential Net Youth Migration Index. Iran has scored negatively in all these indicators, which means given no restrictions, the rate of total emigration, brain drain, and youth emigration exceed the rate of immigration. In other words, if there are no restrictions, the population of the country will decrease by 16%, brain drain will be 27%, and the youth’s population will decrease by 19% (based on data from the period 2015-2017). It should be mentioned that most countries are similar to Iran and will face a loss in their population, the phenomenon of brain drain, and the emigration of their youth in case of less restrictions. In addition, it is noteworthy that the scores for countries having similar conditions to Iran are quite similar to each other.

-Iran ranked 87th out of 150 countries in terms of attracting foreigners and retaining its citizens. In addition, the country ranked 78th out of 109 countries in terms of brain gain and retaining its specialists, 77th out of 150 countries in terms of attracting to foreign youth and retaining its young population.

The status of Iran in terms of the Visa-free Score

-The Visa-free Score indicates the number of countries the holder of a passport can travel to without any visa requirements.

-The index showed that the most powerful passport in the third season of 2021 belonged to Japan that scored 193. Singapore ranked second (scoring 192) and Germany and South Korea shared the third place (scoring 191).

- The U.S. and the U.K, which scored 87, shared the 7th rank with Belgium, New Zealand, and Switzerland.

-The ranking in our region was as follows: UAE 15, Turkey 56, Qatar 59, Kuwait 60, Bahrain 68, Oman 70, Saudi Arabia 71, Azerbaijan 80, and Armenia 84.

- Iranians can travel visa-free to 42 countries, and Iran ranked 105th among 116 passport classes, being at the same level as Sri Lanka.

-Overall, the visa-free scores of 183 out of the 199 investigated passports are higher than Iran; in other words, the citizens of 183 countries can travel (visa-free) to more countries compared to Iranians.


Iran Migration Outlook 2021 illustrates the latest (most recent) statistics and information related to international migration both related to Iran and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, merely taking a statistical and numerical view towards a complicated phenomenon such as migration, which is on the rise globally, is not sufficient. Thus, it is essential to keep the following set of considerations in mind:

-Migration in the world

The persistent accelerating rise of international migration

The latest migration statistics and indicators show that the population of international migrants (mostly first generation) has reached 281 million people in 2020, which is a 9-million increase from 2019. Thus, arguably, even the spread of the coronavirus and enforcement of strict restrictions on international mobility have not been able to stop the increasing trend of global migration. The drivers of international migration include economic factors (particularly poverty and the economic gap between the global south and the global north), personal and social welfare, seeking a better future, accessing better opportunities in a foreign country, and other factors such as political instabilities and the spread of violence and insecurity in many regions (particularly the Middle East), which continue to increase the population of migrants and the intensify migration aspirations across the globe.

Increasing migration aspirations across the globe: a product of global communications and uneven development

A main factor that affects the global increase of migration aspirations is the uneven development of the global north (developed) and global south (underdeveloped) countries. This phenomenon has led to higher economic, social, and political prosperity for the developed world and deepened the economic and digital gaps between them and underdeveloped countries. Thus, such imbalance and the spread of communication technologies (particularly the Internet and the cyberspace) has prompted migrants to send information related to the educational and occupational opportunities, economic and social welfare facilities, and residential and citizenship capacities of their host countries to their homelands. Greater access to this information and increased awareness of migration opportunities can intensify migration waves, an example of which is the refugee crisis of 2015.

The migration waves of the post-COVID era

The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously disturbed migration trends and international mobility, and no credible information concerning the detailed impact of the pandemic on migration is available yet. Nevertheless, it is predicted that the world will face major waves of migration in the post-COVID era, because the main drivers of migration including poverty, hunger, unemployment, prejudice, violence, insecurity, and similar push factors have been strengthened significantly during the pandemic, hence making it a possibility that the compressed spring of migration will be released quite strongly. The post-COVID migration wave can be much bigger and more expansive than the one that headed towards Europe in 2015 from African and Asian countries.

The plans of the developed countries to recruit the healthcare workers of other countries

Due to the increasing importance of supplying and retaining healthcare workers during the pandemic and afterwards, this issue has become a vital topic and a basic priority for many countries. In this regard, the developed countries have always succeeded in effectively recruiting specialized human resources from other countries to maintain their economic growth rate and attempt to use the same formula to supply their required healthcare personnel both during and after the pandemic. Thus, the countries that are usually considered migrants’ preferred destinations try hard to recruit the healthcare workers of the developing countries (including Iran) by introducing and implementing attractive programs and facilities such as high-paying job opportunities and expedited issuance of free visas.

The green and red zones during and after the pandemic

Due to the procurement and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, it is expected that the world will face a situation in which different geographical regions are classified as green or red zones in terms of the successful management of the pandemic and access to vaccines. This can continue until the virus is completely eradicated around the globe and all regions turn green. In the meantime, restrictions such as obliging people to obtain health visas or vaccine certificates may be at work for allowing mobility between the regions. The classification itself can turn into a driver for the intensification of migration aspirations and mobility flow from the red zone countries to the green ones. Given the current strong flow of migrants from weak and frail economies towards stronger and developed economies, the mobility flow from red countries to green ones can be expected. Countries should understand the significance of this phenomenon and evaluate the efficiency of their programs to contain the spread of the virus and their citizens’ access to COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible.

The conflicting approaches towards migration management

Although various economic, social, and political push and pull factors create migration trends around the world, different and (sometimes) conflicting policies and responses can be observed in terms of migration management. On one hand, major receiving countries are constantly introducing and implementing programs to facilitate the recruitment of skilled and specialized human resources from other countries; on the other hand, the same countries are faced with a major inflow of low-skilled migrants (particularly asylum-seekers) who are usually considered irregular and illegal. These countries typically adopt forceful measures in such situations and attempt to tighten their control over borders or put up physical barriers such as border walls. The receiving countries, indeed, intend to exploit the benefits and advantages arising from the migration of skilled human resources while the main sending countries that usually grapple with numerous economic, social, and political issues do not have enough motives to retain and prevent the emigration of their human resources. Such countries typically suffer from the lack of efficient policies concerning management and control of migration and cannot compete with the receiving countries in terms of introducing attractive programs. The emigration of human resources from the source countries intensifies their economic and social issues, deepening the gap between them and the receiving countries, and increasing the rate of further emigration. This migration cycle is being intensified and strengthened increasingly across the globe, and people (low-skilled or specialized) migrate to other countries hoping for a better life. Certain countries who claim to support and protect asylum-seekers or are located on the transit path of major migration trends (e.g., Turkey) use migrants’ presence and transit as a leverage or scapegoat to attain their political ends or get economic privileges in their interactions with other countries. 

The lack of international collaboration and a constructive agreement on control and management of migration

The global community needs the collaboration and commitment of all countries in facing major challenges and issues such as world peace and global warming, and the issue of international migration continues to suffer from the lack of a comprehensive, consensus-based, effective, and global solution. Major sending and receiving countries face grapple with many problems arising from the lack of a global solution and their losses constantly increase. In 2018, a UN initiative led to a global compact signed to manage and organize international migration regularly and safely. However, since countries such as the U.S. and Hungary left the compact irresponsibly, it lost its effectiveness in practice. Despite the rise of migration around the world, a lack of collaboration or constructive consensus for controlling and managing the phenomenon -or at least involving all countries in benefiting from the advantages of international migration while mitigating the disadvantages.

Migration in Iran

The black box of migration in Iran: an uncharted domain in need of serious public and governmental attention

The issue of migration became a public and controversial topic in Iran a long time ago. Yet it has seldom been explored scientifically and comprehensively as a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, and many aspects of migration have been left unexplored. This has prevented the formation of a theoretical consensus and constructive discourse concerning the phenomenon among policymakers, the scientific community, and the public. Due to the lack of such understanding and theoretical consensus, migration has been viewed as a negative and damaging phenomenon in the eyes of the government; consequently, the opportunities to benefit from the positive aspects of migration have been missed. In other words, the reproduction of the cycle of ignorance, lack of planning, and inaction not only does not reduce or eliminate the inconvenient impacts of migration on the country but deprives it of all the benefits that could be gained. Migration is a gray phenomenon that can bring about numerous positive and negative consequences for the sending and receiving countries and the migrants themselves. In other words, it is the policymakers’ choices and decisions that can emphasize or undermine the impacts of migration on the sending/receiving countries. Taking such a perspective towards migration in Iran can turn the potential threats into actual opportunities for personal and national growth and excellence.

The compression of the spring of migration aspiration in Iran

The Iranian society is going through one of its most difficult periods regarding economic and social conditions. The coincidence of difficult economic conditions arising from sanctions, severe economic momentums, considerable oscillations in currency exchange rates, unrestrained inflation, a debilitating economic recession, the increased rate of unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and other economic and social issues have strengthened the drivers and push factors of migration, intensifying migration aspirations in the country. Although aspiration may not result in actual migration, the imminent risk of the compressed spring of migration aspiration is felt across various sectors of the Iranian society. Accordingly, while the focus has typically been on brain drain and migration of highly educated people as well as the artistic and athletic elites, migration aspiration has spread to different groups of the society, including the lower economic classes.

The role of “prospects and country attractiveness” in shaping the decisions of Iranians to stay or emigrate

In general, the findings of surveys conducted by IMOBS indicate that “the overall conditions of the country” and “economic factors” are among the major causes and motives for emigration of different social groups. A “lack of opportunities to be influential”, “feeling useless in the country”, and “lack of a promising prospect for the future” strengthen the motives for migration and push people to actively plan for their emigration. The findings of the studies show that migration aspiration has considerably increased among different groups after the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that needs to be investigated in more depth and details. Increase of migration aspirations can set the stage for people to plan and make definitive decisions for migration.

In addition to people who have decided to emigrate, there are some who have delayed their migration or not yet finalized their decisions. It should be noted that although “economic conditions” act as a push factor, they also become an obstacle to migration. In fact, “the increased costs of migration” and “inability to pay the migration costs” are among the main factors that have prevented or delayed people’s migration (particularly among university students and graduates). Therefore, if the overall (particularly economic) conditions of the country improve, the economic factor may have contradictory impacts on migration. On the one hand, people who have not made definitive decisions or have delayed their migration may give up the idea of migration due to improvements in economic conditions. On the other hand, the reduction of migration costs can add to the number of people who make serious plans to migrate. Familial bonds (being near family) and contributing to the development of the country are among the major motives for people who have decided to stay.

In general, “prospects and country attractiveness” is related to a combination of factors including “feeling capable of playing a role in the development of Iran”, “being useful and effective in Iran or abroad”, “Iranians’ sense of belonging to their nationality”, and “the prospects of the country”. Such factors play major roles in shaping migration aspirations of various social groups. Thus, the improvement or decline of the country prespective and attractivenesscan change one’s tendency to migrate in different social groups.

The common belief regarding the one-way brain drain and lack of opportunities for return of highly-educated Iranians

The lack of a coherent policy to establish a realistic and opportunity-based approach to migration management as well as the spread of unreliable data regarding international migration have led to formation of an unrealistic viewpoint in the Iranian society. The induced mentality among the public and even officials is that not only Iran has the highest rate emigration in the world, but also none of its emigrants plan to return. Unfortunately, this mentality is strengthened each day, and has led to the denial of realities and formation of the false dichotomy of “staying” vs. “emigrating without the intention to return”. Such mentality is dangerous since it both undermines self-confidence and social hope and prevents the public from accepting and believing in the return of highly-educated and other groups of Iranian migrants. A society whose members always imagine leaving the country would not see the return of migrants, the reconstruction of social hope, and economic development in its prospects. For instance, the findings of IMOBS show that more than 2000 highly-educated Iranians have returned to and are working in the country over the past 5 years. Nevertheless, this news is doubted by the public, and the message sent to Iranian migrants (whether those who are leaving the country or those who are returning) is that the society is not looking forward to accept them. This lack of interest concerning the return of highly-educated Iranians is much more dangerous than the emigration of Iranian youth. 

The dynamic migration-related strategies of our neighboring countries

Nowadays, countries around the world – particularly the neighboring countries of Iran – attempt to convert threats into opportunities by reaching an accurate understanding of the dynamism of international migrations. Some Arabic states in the Persian Gulf region and Turkey are rapidly planning and implementing cohesive programs to attract investors, creative and innovative human resources, and students/graduates to fulfill their ambitious economic, social, and political goals in the short- and long-run. The Golden Visa program that has recently been introduced in the UAE is an example. Such strategies plan to exploit the fluidity and mobility of human resources in the region as much as possible, and this has created a difficult competition. Countries such as Iran have static approaches towards the migration of their human resources, which results in irrecoverable losses in this competitive market.

The need to change the approaches toward migration of Iranian students and highly-educated people

Understanding the dynamism of the migration of students and highly-educated people in Iran requires a fundamental paradigm shift. Most analyses and approaches in this regard have focused on the “exit” and emigration of students and graduates; the policies and programs have been formed accordingly. This paradigm was popular several decades ago (particularly in the 20th century) and is not proficient or sufficiently effective in dealing with modern issues and circumstances. The new paradigm of migration management, on the other hand, focuses on “brain circulation”, which requires policymakers to take the undeniable realities of the field into account while attending to and revising the country’s policies regarding the international mobility of highly-educated Iranians in order to take advantage from the positive aspects of migration.

The lower ranking of Iran as a source country for international students and improvement of the “international students’ net circulation” index

The latest available and reliable statistics indicate that the ranking of Iran in terms of sending international students has been declining for various reasons over the past few years. According to the traditional paradigm of “brain drain”, this can be interpreted as a fortunate incident. However, such decline in ranking in the mobility market of international students can be interpreted as worrisome if we understand and recognize the importance of the “brain circulation” approach. A considerable presence in this mobility market can guarantee the flow of scientific and technological interactions between Iran and the rest of the world. Thus, the declined ranking of Iran or its reduced share in the market of international students should be contemplated carefully due to the importance of maintaining such presence and consequent interactions particularly via return migration of highly-educated Iranians. While the number of Iranian students in foreign universities has been mostly constant over the past few years, the number of international students in Iran has increased significantly in the same period. This increase and the increased rate of the return migration of highly-educated Iranians have improved the status of Iran in terms of the “net circulation of international students” index.

 Preparing to recruit and utilize international students

The number of international students has increased from 2.1 million in 2000 to 5.6 million in 2018, and countries across the globe have adopted ambitious programs to recruit international students. The number of international students in Iran increased from around 5,500 students in 2011 to around 44,300 students in 2020, which indicates an understanding of the importance of recruiting international students and active participation in this competitive market. Nevertheless, there is a gap in the large-scale national strategies of the country that acts as a major obstacle against recruiting and utilizing the potential of international students as much as possible. Due to a lack of preparedness and insufficient infrastructures regarding education of international students, this field has developed only quantitatively with no existing cohesive plans to recruit and retain international students and benefit from their scientific and technological spillover in the country. In this regard, the laws and procedures have to be updated, so that they can become facilitating, appealing, and competitive. Using an international language of instruction, focusing on recruitment of students from the region, providing opportunities for the employment of international students both during their education and after their graduation, and facilitating foreign employment by implementing start-up visa programs in Science and Technology Parks should be pursued in this regard.

Enriching migration policy-making based on qualitative and quantitative evidence

The lack of reliable data is the main challenge in the field of migration studies in our country. Unfortunately, since there have been no official organizations in Iran in charge of recording and publishing migration data, most of the statistics and news stories released in this regard are inaccurate. The issue of gathering and publishing reliable migration data, therefore, is still a priority. However, it should be noted that reducing migration management to gathering and publishing migration statistics without a qualitative overview of phenomena such as brain drain is a limitation in the field of migration studies. Thus, adopting a quantitative approach towards migration is not sufficient for eliminating the problem and can further lead to neglecting the need for smart policymaking, retention of highly-educated human resources, and improvement of the quality and efficiency of the programs executed in this field. In fact, we need both quantitative and in-depth qualitative studies particularly geared to understand the roots and causes of migration and the behavior of different migrant groups (including elites, athletes, artists, physicians, nurses, etc.). Accordingly, conducting regular annual surveys on migration is crucial.

“Building domestic capacities” and “return migration”: two policy solutions concerning the phenomenon of brain drain

It is obvious that Iran is facing a surplus of human resources, and the major issue is finding a way to exploit these human resources according to the needs and necessities of the country. The share of highly-educated people employed in different sectors of the economy is still quite low, and this is an issue that cannot be resolved easily. In the current conditions, the spillover of these human resources to other countries is inevitable. There are two major policy solutions to respond to this issue:

-          The first solution is increasing the capacity of employment of human resources in the domestic economy. Expanding the “knowledge economy’ to actually benefit from the talents and human resources of the country will prove quite helpful in this regard. The role played by the Iranian Vice-presidency for Science and Technology and the National Elites Foundation can be very important in this regard; however, the mission cannot be accomplished without the assistance and collaboration of other sectors. The programs executed and implemented by the National Elites Foundation and the Vice-presidency for Science and Technology to support national talents can only respond to some of the problems we face in the field of brain drain. Other institutions and sectors should play more constructive roles, particularly to revive social hope and develop the economy based on knowledge and excellence.

-          The second solution is paying attention to “international educational and professional markets” that countries use to improve their human resources’ level of education and skills. Countries use this capacity to increase their soft power abroad and enhance their human resources’ level of education and skills, specially through adoption of “return” policies and programs. China is a successful case in this regard. Qualitative and quantitative studies on return migration indicate that most returnees are highly-spirited and motivated; they have gained international and practical knowledge and experience that can be helpful to many developing countries.

Managing the recruitment and retention of talents: necessary but insufficient

In a macro and comprehensive approach taken towards  talent management on a national scale, the main organizations and institutions in charge of the country’s development and training of human resources must demand a focus on the conditions of recruitment and retention of talents, who are the most important sources of growth and advancement for the country. The conditions of recruitment and retention of human resources is nothing but the general socioeconomic atmosphere of the country and the policies that govern it. Unless the general atmosphere of the country is appropriate for development and training of national talents, the policies adopted to retain human resources cannot be effective and policies meant to attract highly-educated people and encourage return will not prove helpful. Thus, the governing system should seriously focus on creating a public atmosphere that seeks to benefit from human resources; it should also design and implement the programs and policies for the recruitment and retain of human resources according to the target of their influences.

Neglecting the economic and social opportunities of migration

One of the main issues in Iranian society is the increasing aspiration to migrate permanently or temporarily to the neighboring countries, including Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Arab States of the Persian Gulf. Labor and economic migration across the globe, particularly in border regions, can bring about financial benefits for the source country. It is noteworthy that the financial gains of some source countries from economic and labor migration in the form of remittances are several times higher than the oil revenues of Iran. Migration aspiration has alarmingly increased among various social groups (particularly the youth) in Iran due to economic issues. Converting the possible threats of this increased aspiration into opportunities for growth requires smart policies and efficient institutions to implement them. This policy approach should be implemented to exploit the attractions and economic opportunities of the neighboring countries through interacting more closely with them and establishing domestic capacities. Unfortunately, our country has no strategic policies or administrative programs to deal with the above issues.

The unknown Iranian diasporas


Despite the quantitative and statistical approaches taken towards the Iranian communities living abroad, there is still no agreed upon figure for the exact number of Iranian migrants; moreover, few studies have been conducted on the qualitative aspects of these communities. For instance, very little information is available concerning the cultural, social, and economic characteristics of the first generation of Iranian migrants and our knowledge regarding the second and third generations of Iranian migrants – particularly their attitudes towards Iran – is practically non-existent. Although the small number of studies conducted in the field indicate that most first-generation Iranian migrants tend to maintain their relationship and interact with Iran, no coherent and purposeful plans or policies have been developed to exploit the capacity of Iranian migrants. Thus, the vast economic and social capacities of this community of several million people have been neglected, and the diaspora has only been minimally involved in the development of the country.

Migration in light of the demographic situation of the country

Demographic studies show that the demographic window of opportunity for Iran is closing. Unfortunately, in the last few years, Iran has barely benefited from this window to develop economically and socially due to increasing socio-economic pressures. Based on social and demographic realities, it seems that the country cannot develop without adopting dynamic migration policies to recruit highly-educated Iranians and foreigners. Thus, predicting demographic risks and establishing the required institutional and legal infrastructure to implement timely migration policies in line with the threats and opportunities arising from the countries neighboring Iran is necessary.

The crisis of Afghanistan and the need to take migration of refugees into account

Since the decision by U.S and its allies to leave Afghanistan in March 2021, we have been witnessing increasing clashes between state forces and the Taliban and extensive regions in the country have been seized the rebels. Undoubtedly, these circumstances have serious migration implications for Afghanistan and the region. If the conflict continues, not only the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), but also the number of Afghan refugees fleeing to neighboring countries (mainly Pakistan and Iran) will increase. Of course, some refugees will consider Iran as their destination, while others will continue their journey to Turkey and other European countries. This can increase the smuggling of migrants through Iran. On the other hand, programs aiming for voluntary return of Afghan refugees from other countries (including Iran) will be inefficient as clashes continue in Afghanistan. Moreover, the labour force in Afghanistan will face problems in finding jobs and providing for their livelihood due to violence and conflict. In addition to the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy of Afghanistan, this will result in a more significant presence of undocumented Afghan asylum-seekers in Iran who seek occupational opportunities while escaping violence in their homeland. The new government of Iran should therefore start planning for the arrival of Afghan refugees and documentation of their presence while attempting to obtain financial assistance from international organizations for hosting and providing service to Afghan refugees and displaced people.

The need to update migration laws and establish a national department of migration

For several decades both before and after the Islamic Revolution, Iran has experienced inflows and outflows of international migrants in the form of Iranian emigration and foreign immigration. Despite, there have been no coherent policies or up-to-date legal frameworks adopted in this period. This has not only created major challenges, but also led to the loss of numerous economic and social opportunities in the field of migration. Developing and updating laws and regulations related to different aspects of international migration, including the dual citizenship of Iranian migrants and rights of foreign nationals to access financial and social services in Iran, are necessary. Since policy-making for and management of affairs related to Iranian migrants and the foreign nationals residing in Iran require a professional institution, the establishment of the “Department of Migration” seems vital at the moment.

A list of the most important policy recommendations and relevant actions for exploiting the capacity of Iranian migrants and foreign nationals in Iran has been proposed in the final chapter of this outlook.

[1] For instance, the head of the Center for the Faculty Recruitment of the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology said that 2214 graduates of foreign universities were employed in Iranian universities in the period of April 2004 to April 2021.

[2] The number has increased from 103 countries to 132 countries in 2020. However, the number of countries had decreased to 93 countries in 2014.


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