Prominent human rights lawyer Shadi Sadr recently drew attention to this phenomenon through a Twitter thread in which she highlighted the rise in the number of Iranian asylum seekers between 2013 and 2018.
“Interestingly, last year,” she tweeted, “the number of unaccompanied Iranian children seeking asylum was higher than the number of unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Syria – three countries that are involved in armed conflict.”
People responded to Sadr’s thread with shock and disbelief. Iran is obviously far from being a paradise, but it is certainly safer and more stable than most of its embattled neighbours suffering from internal conflicts and broken economies. This is why many Iranians don’t quite understand how or why some of the parents among them would choose to risk the lives of their children by sending them alone into the unknown.
Many on social media accused the families who choose to send their offspring away without the necessary legal and economic protections of being irresponsible. Some even blamed satellite TV channels like London-based Manoto and BBC Persian for misrepresenting the life in the West by under-reporting the difficulties.
However, the reality is not that simple. The act of sending your child off into such an arduous journey indicates not irresponsibility or naivety, but abject desperation, which has spread across many layers of Iranian society.
Emigration from Iran is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Over the last four decades hundreds of thousands of Iranians have left their homeland and over time constituted a diaspora of four million people around the world. Some managed to obtain the necessary documents and flew over to other countries to set up a new life, some walked across mountains and jumped over barbed wires and languished in refugee camps before settling in a new home.
The largest wave of migration occurred after the 1979 revolution, as the new regime launched a vicious campaign of prosecution against all dissident groups. The start of the war with Iraq a year later made migration a matter of survival for many and further intensified this immigration wave. Then, there was another wave after the failure of reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s administration to bring about a major political change, a significant one after the crackdown on the Green Movement.
Over the past decade, most Iranian emigrants were leaving the country because of political crackdowns, illegal asset confiscation by the state, heavy-handed social and religious control, or the danger of persecution based on sexual orientation.
But sending unaccompanied children on a dangerous journey is a novelty. Such desperate decisions are being made today in Iran because many Iranians have lost all hope for the future. They believe that their children can only have a future if they leave the county.
Of course, there are Iranian parents who can afford a safe passage for their children to the West.
The list begins with the powerful politicians, the supposedly staunch enemies of the West. The children of many people in the highest positions of power, from Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani to Hossein Fereydoun, brother and aide of President Hassan Rouhani, all live in the West. This has recently been a topic of heated debate in the Iran media, so much so that Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly demanded President Donald Trump to publish the list of all children of Iranian government officials in the United States.
Then there are the middle classes in the big cities, who are far more pro-Western than prominent politicians. They go through great difficulties to send their children abroad, mostly through paying exorbitant tuition fees of European and American universities.
And now, there are the children of the urban and the rural poor who are sent abroad on dangerous journeys as the last beacon of hope for whole extended families. There has always been poverty in Iran, but the desire for mass migration among impoverished communities has never been as strong.
I have relatives in the south of Iran – fishermen, who have hardly left their towns over the course of their lives – now talking about migration. I know of farmers in the south-west who have lived through the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war and poverty and remained; but now, after all these years, they have also decided that the youngsters of their families should leave.
This is a sign of a new level of hopelessness among Iranians never seen before. But why does the future of the young generation in Iran appear so bleak? There are at least three reasons.
Rampant corruption and inequality
The 1979 Islamic Revolution put fighting corruption on top of its priority list. Yet, today, some 40 years later, corruption is so rampant that it is causing disastrous inequality and much public anger. According to Transparency International, in 2017, Iran was the fourth most corrupt country in the world in the eyes of its people.
Over the last few years, taking advantage of the tumultuous market and under the guise of privatisation, the Iranian elite has embezzled millions of dollars from banks, financial institutions and companies and transferred the assets abroad. For example, only through the last two quarters of 2018, $30bn was transferred out of Iran.
The display of inequality in the big cities, especially Tehran, rubs salt into this wound. Struggling masses watch the children of a small elite driving their Lamborghinis and Porsches around, posting photos of their lavish parties and their travels around the world on social media. This flagrant spectacle of inequality has created deep anger and pessimism about the future.
After years of severe sanctions, which brought the Iranian economy to the verge of collapse, in 2015, Iran finally signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which lifted some of them. However, just as the Iranian economy was getting back on its feet, Trump single-handedly and senselessly tore up the deal Iran had fully abided by.
Like in the past, it will be Iran’s ordinary people who will bear the brunt of the sanctions regime. Workers and government employees will be severely affected, as well as urban and rural poor, who are dependent on government support, and have been struggling with cut back on subsidies and delayed paycheques. Also, the dramatic inflation rate of basic commodities hits the poor first and diminishes their purchasing power.
Trapped between the rock of a cruel, unjustifiable punishment from the international community and the hard place of their own incompetent leaders, many Iranians feel abandoned, betrayed by the world that only three years ago promised them peace and prosperity.
An environmental crisis
Apart from the corruption and sanctions, which have been a persistent feature of the Iranian reality for many years, there seems to be another important factor which is causing rural Iranians – say, a fisherman in Bushehr or a farmer in a village in Lorestan – to try to send their children to the West. It is climate change.
Currently, Iran is in the middle of an environmental tragedy. Years of drought, combined with mismanagement of water and outdated agricultural technology, has caused shortages of water in large parts of the country, jeopardising the life and work of farmers. Also, the rising temperature of oceans and industrial fishing by mostly Chinese boats has decreased the number of fish. According to some estimates, 97 percent of Iran has serious problems with water resources.
This, along with the economic sanctions and corruption, has already caused a massive wave of internally displaced people. Even Abd al-Reza Rahmani Fazli, the minister of internal affairs, recently warned that within five years, internal migration will change the face of the country, and, if the current trend continues, in 10 years, Iran will undergo an “enormous catastrophe”.
If corruption continues in the same unbridled fashion, economic sanctions keep taking their toll and the environmental crisis continues to be left untended, the pressure on the very fabric of the society might be too huge to bear. That will exacerbate the internal migration towards the greener north and continue to increase the number of migrants to other countries, especially unaccompanied children, whose family see no hope for their future in Iran.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.