Immigration of Athletes from Iran

Immigration of Athletes from Iran
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The phenomenon of immigration, whether individually or collectively, is one of the issues that the international public has been discussing in recent days. Iran is located on the immigration corridors between countries. While it has been receiving immigrants from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq for almost half a century, there has been an important level of immigration from Iran to many other countries, especially Europe and the USA. Moreover, it has experienced internal migration movements within the country. The 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent eight-year Iran-Iraq War paved the way for immigration from Iran due to political and security reasons, and then brain drain and labor migration began to be seen in the country in the 1990s and 2000s respectively. According to the former (2015) data of the International Organization for Migration on Iran, the country ranks 69th among 188 countries with an immigration rate of 3.4%. However, it is a well-known fact that immigration from Iran has accelerated recently, and Türkiye stands out as an attractive destination for Iranians. Athletes can be mentioned among the group of people, who immigrated from Iran, and their immigration from the country not only arouses a feeling that disturbs the national pride in the society but also causes Iran to lose skilled labor. 

Sports Sector Under the Suppression of the Sanctions

It is a fact that the international sanctions that Iran has faced since the Revolution hindered the development of many sectors in the country while also affecting sports. Lack of infrastructure and facilities, not being able to attract foreign athletes or technical personnel, or facing difficulties while making payments to them, the income of qualified athletes below world standards, and visa problems in athlete mobility can be listed as some problems in this context. It is also necessary to note the difficulty in the entry of sports equipment into the country due to the sanctions. Nevertheless, in addition to the embargoes, there are also issues arising from Iran's internal dynamics that trigger the immigration of athletes. The influence of politics in all sports clubs and federations, the attempts to Islamize sports, and the insufficient development of sports law to establish an ideal relationship between athletes and clubs/federations can be mentioned in this regard. Since the immigration of qualified athletes from the country has created a public debate for a while, the President of the National Olympic Committee of Iran Reza Salehi Amiri made the following statement on the issue: “This issue should not be magnified. The athletes have the lowest share in the immigration figures. Although we are not against immigration, we are sensitive to asylum and political attitudes that go beyond sports. All champions and athletes are wholeheartedly devoted to Iran, Islam, and the Revolution.” However, Iran's Islamic Consultative Assembly Research Center, which takes the issue seriously, published a detailed report regarding the issue. In the report, it is stated that “The sports system [and its infrastructure] in Iran is not regular, targeted and consistent. Hence, issues such as the identification of talented [athletes] and, more importantly, the management of talented [individuals] are rarely carried out realistically and systematically in line with certain rules and data.” Apart from this, the report also mentions the economic situation in the country and the declining income figures of the sports sector and the athletes.

According to the reports of the press, 66 national athletes, who competed in international games and had medals, immigrated from Iran or sought asylum from another country since the Revolution. In addition, they competed in international games on the behalf of their country of immigration not so long after their immigration. Some of them even won games against Iran. Furthermore, it should be considered that there are stories that were not covered by the press concerning athletes, who immigrated from the country before finding a chance to join the national team. While some athletes immigrated from Iran for better education and living conditions, it is also witnessed that there have been athletes who escaped from the national team camp in a competition abroad. The five countries most preferred by Iranian athletes for immigration are Germany, the USA, France, Azerbaijan, and the Netherlands, respectively. Again, the five branches that lost the most athletes, respectively, are taekwondo, chess, wrestling, judo, and gymnastics. According to the observations, there is a tendency to migrate among athletes who are active in individual sports and compete in the Olympics more than athletes who are active in group sports.

So why do Iranian athletes immigrate? Generally speaking, reasons include limited opportunities in the country, indifference or mismanagement of managers, injustice in inviting athletes to the national team, not attaching importance to branches other than football, the uncertainty of the future of sports and athletes due to the economic situation of the country, instability, low income, lack of independence of clubs-federations, and direct intervention of politics in sports (the most obvious example of the situation is the withdrawal of the Iranian side from the game in case of pairing with Israel in international competitions because Iran does not recognize Israel). According to a recent study by the country's official news agency IRNA, 29 of the athletes who immigrated from Iran until May 2022 explained the reason for their departure as "discomfort with the federation, obstacles to the development of professional athleticism” and 23 of them declared political and religious reasons. While eight athletes mentioned personal and family reasons, six athletes did not make any statement. These data are remarkable since they show firsthand that the immigration of athletes stems from the internal dynamics of the country as well as the external dynamics. Similarly, academic publications based on field studies also reveal that there are institutional, social, economic, political, and cultural reasons for the immigration of athletes.

Female Athletes

It is necessary to evaluate the immigration of female athletes separately. When women and sports come together in Iran, they constitute a source of tension, and female athletes are affected by this situation. Until recently, there was an obstacle to women's entrance to the stadiums in the country. Apart from this, the inability of women to be active in some sports branches such as bodybuilding paves the way for discrimination discussions. Female athletes also have problems participating in some international pool-based competitions due to their way of dressing/veiling. Leaving aside the debates concerning the lack of equal opportunity for women in sports, it can be said that one of the factors that constrain female athletes is compulsory veiling. Female athletes compete in both national and international competitions while following the rules of veiling. It is possible to say that a serious part of the athletes is uncomfortable with this situation, but the attitudes of the authorities on this issue do not seem to be softened in the short term. Approximately one-third of the athletes leaving the country are female athletes. As two examples of these athletes, national weightlifter Parisa Jahanfekrian and handball player Shaghayegh Bapiri made statements targeting the federation administrations after they left the country. When these statements are taken into consideration, it is understood that there are problems specific to women regarding the issue. Indeed, it is noteworthy that Iranian female athletes, who compete for another country, appear on the field without wearing headscarves.


Although it has not reached a high level yet, as a developing country, the immigration of athletes from Iran to developed countries is on the rise. If the ongoing conditions in Iran continue, more news about the immigration of athletes may be seen in the coming days. It is obvious that the Persian media in the diaspora pay special attention to this issue. It stems from the fact that the news about the migrating athletes is more echoed in the diaspora media, and several interviews are made with these athletes. While such content undoubtedly harms Iran's reputation, it also aims to create distrust/despair in Iranian society towards the institutions responsible for sports, and, in a broader sense, the state. 

On the other hand, sports can be considered a soft power element since athletes represent their countries as cultural ambassadors, especially on international platforms, and countries are proud of their achievements. The increasing immigration of high-level athletes weakens Iran's position in this matter while also hindering the development of the sports sector. It causes the weakening of Iran's national sports power, the decrease in the human resource in sports, the damage to the emotional ties between the athletes and their country, and the gap between the society and the athletes. All of these adversely affect the emergence of a new generation in sports. Therefore, it can be predicted that the immigration of athletes from Iran will continue in the medium and long term if there are no structural changes in the sports sector, which is a part of the socio-economic trend in the country and controlled by political will.