The 1979 Iranian revolution saw the fall of the Shah and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile in France. He returned, and five million Iranians left to go and live abroad. The first wave, which left hurriedly, was made up of people close to the Shah, and senior military and civil service personnel. They rightly thought the new regime would be a mortal threat.
Iran was left to the revolutionaries. Every political group, from leftists to religious radicals saw the Shah’s fall and the arrival of Khomeini as a new era, and an end to dictatorship.
But this feeling did not last. Soon, leftist or liberal groups with no religious affiliations were bloodily broken up. Thousands were executed and the rest fled abroad, their numbers increasing once Iraq declared war on Iran.
Immigration was steadily fuelled by political repression, laws clamping down on women such as the obligatory wearing of the veil, and other extremist measures. The stream of people leaving became a flood. Among Iran’s neighbours there is emigration for economic reasons. But most Iranians leave mainly because of the political situation, not to find work. They want freedom, and they mostly find it in the West.
In 2005, the day after Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s presidential election, all hope of improvement or reform evaporated, and Iranian emigration went up another notch.
Thousands more left in 2009 following Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election and the wave of killings and repressions that followed. Many activists had no choice but to leave by crossing dangerous frontiers.
Bahman Amini runs a publishing house, Khavaran, in Paris. He fled in the 1980s, and has since published several books detailing the lives of political prisoners and refugees. He says in many cases fleeing the regime has cost dissidents their lives.
“Many fugitives, I would say refugees, died trying to leave Iran, notably via Turkey or Pakistan. In the harshest of conditions they had to leave by night, in the cold or in the snow, on horseback, however they could. Some were caught, and many political activists or fugitives were quickly executed. We have their names. Sometimes fugitives were even extradited back to Iran,” he claims.
Forced emigration or exile is never easy. But for several years, and thanks to new technologies and means of communication, the exiles have been able to stay in contact with home. Mana Neyestani is an exiled Iranian caricaturist and journalist. He has lived in France since 2011 and has published two books.
“The first and second generation of Iranian immigrants felt isolated abroad. Today they don’t feel that. I think that the internet age with its virtual spaces and social networks has changed the nature of exile. My territory is the internet now. Soon you might be able to download me…(in other words) you click on a button and you’ll receive me at home. I’m more in the internet than in Paris, or even Iran,” he says.
These new technologies and networks have strengthened relations between the Iranian diaspora and home. This means events there have a direct impact on the communities abroad, especially when Iranians feel a danger to the values and people of Iran.
As an example, in the demonstrations against the 2009 election hundreds of thousands of people broadcast the aspirations of the crowds on Iran’s streets from within Iran itself. The exiles are beyond Tehran’s reach and cannot be cowed or suppressed; they are able to retransmit the otherwise censored internal opposition to the world, which makes the regime even angrier.
“One of the events of 2009 in Paris was the Green Petition. It was unprecedented. More than 200 cities around the world took part. From Dushanbe or Tajikistan or India, groups of Iranians wrote a simple phrase on a green tissue: “Ahmadinejad is not our president”, and sent it to Paris. We put them all together here in a ribbon several kilometres long, and then showed it near the Eiffel tower,” says Neyestani.
Iran’s social and political instability, and the ever-worsening repression at universities of professors and students has led to a number of intellectuals, experts and students leaving.
The IMF puts Iran top of the brain-drain list in 91 underdeveloped or developing nations, and in the same report claims Iran loses over 100,000 highly-qualified people every year – that is over 400 a day. The cost? About 50 billion dollar (38 billion euros), and the damage done to the economy and society is irreparable.
“Our brains are leaving for the simple reason that they cannot live or work in Iran. I think everyone would prefer to live where they are born and have grown up, but when you are made to feel unwanted, or your work is belittled, you naturally prefer to go where you are appreciated and your skills are valued. This is why the brain drain is dragging us down,” concludes Neyestani.