Unheard Voices: The Silent Struggles of Iran’s Refugee Families

Zamaneh Media
8 min readNov 30, 2023

by Kanaan Mukhtar — 24November2023

After ten years of marriage and with two daughters aged five and seven, “Marzieh,” a 36-year-old woman, had no choice but to return to her father’s house.

“Infinity Way” by Iman Rezaee. Source: CartoonMovement.

Her husband is neither deceased nor officially separated from her, but they haven’t seen each other for two years and eight months. With a choked voice, she says:

“It was my fault; I shouldn’t have let him go and leave me alone here with two kids. He said once I get my residency sorted, I’ll easily bring you all over. Initially, he went to Turkey with a passport along with a few others, stayed there for seven or eight months, then one day called and said the smugglers are taking us across today. After that call, I didn’t hear from him for a month. My heart was torn apart, and there was no one to ask about him. In that one month, I aged ten years. After a month, he called to say they reached England and talked about the hardships of the journey. He was supposed to sort out his residency in six or seven months, but there’s still no news. He sold the car and all the shop’s equipment to finance his migration. Now, I have nothing but my father’s house. I have no job or income source. I don’t know what will become of us.”

Marzieh’s story is a painful tale shared by thousands of Iranian families whose spouses, children, siblings, or parents have embarked on migration in search of a better life; illegal migrants who not only face various dangers, including death, but also leave their families in constant sorrow and anxiety.

According to the director of the Iran Migration Observatory, more than 65,000 Iranians migrate annually on average, and the desire to migrate is increasing every day in the country. Data published by this center shows that the number of Iranians who have left the country in the past two years has doubled compared to 30 years ago.

Migrants come from all professions, from tailors, hairdressers, and welders to students, university students, and professors. However, it is the stories of the families of illegal migrants that take place behind the scenes that cannot be found in government figures and statistics.

“The governance style, economic instability, entrenched corruption in the country, Iran’s sanction conditions, currency fluctuations, inflation, and economic conditions are the main reasons for Iranians’ desire to migrate,” says the director of the Iran Migration Observatory.

Dangers of Illegal Migration

“Illegal migration is a matter of life and death,” says the father of an Iranian asylum seeker. His son has been waiting for smugglers in Turkey for a year, and the family has to provide for his living expenses. He tells a Zamaneh reporter:

“He had no job or business here. Whatever job he tried, he couldn’t last more than a week, couldn’t even earn his own expenses. He was depressed. He had been planning to migrate for a long time. We had a small piece of agricultural land; I sold it for him and said this is all I can do for you. Initially, he was supposed to go from Turkey to Germany in a week. Now, he’s been stuck there for a year and doesn’t even have pocket money. He’s tried to make the journey two or three times and returned each time. Every time he goes, the whole sky crashes down on me. I’m afraid he might drown in the water or something happens to him. He doesn’t listen to me, keeps saying, ‘If I return, what should I do? Has the situation changed?’ It’s not just the risk of death; there’s cold, hunger, beatings, and a thousand other miseries on their way.”

Every year, there are numerous reports of Iranian asylum seekers dying from cold or drowning: On October 27, 2020, a small fishing boat carrying 23 Iranian asylum seekers capsized in the English Channel between France and Britain, resulting in the death of all five members of the “Iran-Nejad” family from Sardasht, West Azerbaijan.

On January 16, 2022, two Iranian refugees died of hypothermia after being forcibly returned by Turkish border guards. On February 26, 2023, the sinking of a ship carrying asylum seekers off the southern coast of Italy claimed the lives of at least 40 citizens from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. According to the human rights news agency “Hengaw,” in the first eight months after March 21, 2021, at least seven Kurdish asylum seekers from the cities of Kermanshah, Thalas Babajani, Marivan, and Sardasht lost their lives while migrating to Europe. Hengaw also reported the death of a 31-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker on October 12th this year, due to hypothermia in the border forests of Belarus and Poland.

“… He has been in Germany for three years. In these three years, we sold everything we had, and his residency is still not sorted. He thinks if he gets his residency, he can take me and our child there, but I doubt it. These years have been the hardest days of my life…”

According to the special statistical-analytical issue of the “Iran Migration Observatory,” Iranian asylum seekers rank first in illegal crossings of the English Channel. This special issue states that from March 2009 2023, a total of 52,054 illegal Iranian migrants have been identified at the borders of the European Union and Schengen member countries, averaging about 3,470 illegal migrants per year. Also, the majority of identified Iranians (about 71%) were on the Eastern Mediterranean route. Iran, with 18,318 illegal migrants, has been the first country in illegal crossings by boat in the English Channel from March 2018 to March 2023.

Despite the dangers of illegal migration, Iranians’ desire to leave the country has not diminished. Unofficial estimates show that with the subsiding of the protests last year and the increase in arrests, as well as the issuance of heavy sentences for some protesters, the number of illegal migrations has also increased. The sister of a political asylum seeker tells ‘Zamaneh’ about this:

“My brother participated in the protests, about a year ago several of his friends were arrested, and he went into hiding for a while. The intelligence service contacted my father several times, telling him to instruct his son to turn himself in. Since then, he illegally crossed the border into Iraq. After that, with a lot of difficulties, he made his way to Germany. His residency matters are still not sorted out. Ever since he left, we haven’t had a moment’s peace. We’re constantly stressed that something might happen to him, or, who knows, they might deport him. My mother has become sick with worry. Of course, if he had stayed here, God only knows what they would have done to him.”

According to the data from the Iran Migration Yearbook published last year (1401 Persian year), about 44% of students and graduates in Iran have a ‘very high’ desire to migrate. And 42% of entrepreneurs and senior managers, and 48% of managers have a ‘high’ inclination to migrate. Also, the strong desire to migrate among business employees is around 50%. This yearbook, based on global data, notes that Iran ranks 87th out of 150 countries in the ‘Potential Migration Flow Index’ for the year 2018 and 106th out of 177 countries in the ‘Brain Drain Index’ for 2022.

The wife of one of these migrants shares about her husband’s intense desire to migrate to Zamaneh:

“He often talked about migrating. Honestly, I was not in favor. I used to say, ‘How can I come with you with a three-year-old child, in a foreign country, especially with all these dangers?’ He didn’t listen to me. His job here was building welding, and he used to say there’s a lot of work for us in Europe. Eventually, he nagged me so much that I had to agree, or rather, I was forced to. Now, it’s been three years that he has settled in Germany. In these three years, we sold everything we had, and his residency is still not sorted out. He thinks if he gets his residency, he can take me and our child there, but I doubt it. These years have been the hardest days of my life. We had a modest income before, we were together, but now what? Some nights I think he has forgotten about me and his child, maybe I’ll never see him again. My whole life has become worry and anxiety. If it weren’t for my family’s help, I would have had to sleep on the streets.”

Governance Style: A Factor in Migration

Despite the significant growth of migration (both legal and illegal) in Iran, it seems that the officials of the Islamic Republic do not have a solution to improve the current conditions.

Bahram Solvati, the director of the Iran Migration Observatory, recently stated in a meeting examining the challenges and strategies for managing the migration of elites, that the migration of these individuals is a complex cultural, political, and social issue, emphasizing:

“We have lost time regarding the migration of elites, and in some classifications, the migration rate has reached 80 percent.”

In the same meeting, Babak Negahdari, the head of the Parliamentary Research Center, commented:

“Unfortunately, today a significant percentage of professors, doctors, and elites are inclined to migrate, and among those who have migrated, their retention rate is high. This inclination to migrate, apart from professors and elites, has reached knowledge-based companies and even high school students, deepening the issue.”

Mohammad Sharifi Moghaddam, the Secretary-General of the Nursing House, has recently stated, while mentioning that ‘annually more than 3,000 nurses migrate from Iran’:

“The shortage of nurses is currently so serious that patients are losing their lives due to this shortage. If you don’t hear such a thing from patients and visitors, it has two reasons: either they are not aware, or they are compliant and accept the shortages. I can confidently say that patients are dying due to the lack of nurses.”

Although statistics, evidence, and statements from some officials indicate the ringing of the alarm bell for migration in Iran, recently, Rouhollah Dehghani Firouzabadi, the Vice President for Science and Technology, did not consider the phenomenon of migration of elites and specialists as worrying and announced:

“As one of the entities involved with the issue, it is good for me to tell you that the statistics of the groups, individuals, and companies migrating are not dangerous at all. That is, for example, if 100 people used to go in previous years, now it has become 200.”

In response to the question about the serial dismissal of university professors and the increasing inclination of elites to migrate, Hossein Mohammad Salehi, a member of the Internal Affairs Commission of the Parliament, in an interview in with the ‘Entekhab’ website in September this year said:

“What is the cost of preventing the departure of elites? When an elite stays in the country, they must serve the people, but anti-people activities are unacceptable from anyone at any level. Everyone is equal before the law. We are not supposed to keep the elites in the country at the cost of letting them do whatever they want.”

Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghaddam, a member of the Expediency Discernment Council and a member of the Central Council of the Clergy Association, on the eve of the anniversary of last year’s protests, told Entekhab, “Following these events, a significant part of the country’s reserves were transferred abroad, and many elites migrated. Also, people’s businesses in the field of cyberspace faced serious problems for months.” He also identified the ‘public protests last year’ as the instigator and culprit of the country’s problems.

Despite denying the severity of the economic situation and entrenched corruption, the director of the Iran Migration Observatory last year, referring to the assessments of this center, stated, “The style of governance and state management, economic instability, the existence of entrenched corruption in the country, Iran’s sanction conditions, currency fluctuations, inflation, and economic conditions are the most important reasons for Iranians’ desire to migrate.’”

+Zamaneh Media

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Zamaneh Media

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