Sepideh, a middle-aged doctor, left Iran to benefit from the higher wages and better living conditions offered abroad.
After first moving to the Gulf state of Oman, the single mother recently relocated to Finland, where she lives with her child.
“The working conditions [in Iran] were difficult,” Sepideh, who did not reveal her full name due to fears for the safety of her family in Iran, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.
“I didn’t have the [financial] security to send my child to a good school. They told my child things that I as a mother don’t want [my child] to hear,” she added, in reference to state schools that have been accused of promoting religious and ideological propaganda.
Sepideh is among the thousands of Iranian health professionals who have left their homeland in recent years, mainly due to the country’s deepening economic crisis, difficult working conditions, and the lack of social and political freedoms.
Iranian media outlets have estimated that some 16,000 doctors, including specialists, have left the Islamic republic since 2020, leading to warnings of a public health-care crisis.
The exodus accelerated after the coronavirus pandemic, which took a heavy toll on health-care workers. Iran was one of the worst affected countries in the world, recording over 146,000 deaths.
Doctors have also been targeted by the authorities for treating protesters during the nationwide antiestablishment demonstrations that rocked the country following the September 2022 death in custody of a woman who had allegedly violated Iran’s mandatory head-scarf law.
For Sepideh, her difficult decision to leave her homeland and extended family was mainly financial.
“Our salaries were not paid on time, and we had no recourse to complain about our working conditions,” she said. “There was no job security, and the taxes were too high.”
Sepideh said doctors have seen their livelihoods plunge in recent years due to soaring inflation and the declining value of the rial, Iran’s national currency. International sanctions and government mismanagement have crippled the Iranian economy, leading to rising poverty and unemployment.
“The salary you earn here [in Europe] is enough to live off,” she said. “You also have social freedoms here.”
Sepideh also said the authorities’ widening crackdown on women who violate the country’s draconian hijab law is driving some female doctors to leave their homeland.
“Many of my female colleagues were arrested over the hijab,” she said. “One was a gynecologist. All her clients were women, but she was arrested and interrogated by the Intelligence Ministry.”
More women have defied the mandatory head scarf — a key symbol of the Islamic republic — since nationwide protests broke out over the violent enforcement of the hijab law and the lack of freedoms in the country. The state’s brutal crackdown on the rallies left at least 500 demonstrators dead.
Authorities said around 3,000 doctors, including 160 cardiologists, and some 800 nurses sought work abroad last year.
“This country is emptying of doctors,” Mohammad Raeeszadeh, the head of the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran, told a gathering of surgeons earlier this month.
He said that low wages have pushed Iranian doctors to look for “higher salaries” abroad, especially in the oil-rich Gulf states.
Officials have warned of an acute shortage of doctors, although it is unclear if the government has taken steps to stem the exodus. Some officials have suggested the country could look to attract doctors from abroad.
Iran has faced a severe brain drain since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which brought to power the current clerical establishment. Estimates suggest that nearly 200,000 skilled professionals have left the country during the past four decades, with many resettling in the West.
Shahram, a specialist doctor, moved to Canada last year after seeing his livelihood diminish at home. He said he earned around $20,000 a year in Iran, although with soaring inflation and rising costs his standard of living had fallen dramatically in recent years.
“I was apprehensive about my professional future,” Shahram, who only revealed his first name, told Radio Farda. “Doctors need support [from the government]. The lack of support is disheartening doctors.”
Sepideh said the loss of specialist doctors is particularly worrisome. “We are losing many specialists every year,” she said. “They are the real treasure of our nation.”