Porters Struggle to Survive

Two kulbars were shot dead in Baneh County of Kurdistan Province last week when border guards opened fire at a group of smugglers sighted one kilometer away from the Iraqi border, close to Hang-e Zhaleh village.

The five guards responsible for the shooting were summoned by a military court and arrested. Kurdistan Province’s Chief Military Prosecutor, Mojtaba Shirood-Bozorgi says the incident will be investigated with “utmost care and urgency due to the public sensitivities,” Mehr News Agency quoted the  Armed Forces Judiciary Organization as saying.

Iranian law says border guards can fire a weapon only if they believe the person illegally crossing the border is armed and dangerous. Only after this fact is ascertained the guard must: first issue an oral warning and after that shoot in the air to stop the entry/exit. If this does not work, he should target the lower part of the body if necessary.

The latest incident once again turned attention toward the poverty-stricken people forced to risk their lives to smuggle heavy goods across the border. It has been reported that most of the smugglers are not owners of the goods they carry and couriers paid a paltry $10 a day!

Kulbars or porters have a job few would take even if the returns were much higher. They almost always have to cross treacherous terrain for long hours with contraband that includes tobacco, tea, car tires, heaters, TV sets as well as heavy items like air conditioners or refrigerators.

The job has become common in some western border provinces of Iran, including Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Ilam, which share a border with Iraq, and the province of West Azarbaijan, that neighbors Turkey.

 High and Rising Joblessness

Poverty and unemployment are considered as the main reasons behind the temptation to risk life and limb for a tiny payment. The Statistical Center of Iran says the unemployment rate in the first three month of the current fiscal (March 21-June 20) was 13.7% in Kurdistan, 14.2% in Ilam, 13.7% in Kermanshah, and 11% in Western Azarbaijan – four border regions where the smuggling is rampant and authorities have failed to reverse the trend for obvious reasons.

Due to the remaining undetonated landmines of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), farming is not possible in some regions of Kurdistan Province. These two reasons have resulted in Kurdistan comprising most of the population of smugglers.

Last year the Kurdish smuggler population was estimated to be around 60,000 when the government initiated a plan to identify and organize them by issuing special identity cards. In a talk with Tansnim News Agency earlier this year, Rasoul Khazri, representative of the people of Piranshahr in the Majlis (Parliament) put their number at approximately 65,000.

The ID cards were issued in an effort to strictly control the smuggling of arms and alcohol (that is more profitable compared to, say, shoes and apparel). It allows each porter to cross the frontier only from specially- designated areas twice a week. However, this solution failed to produce the desired results because hardly 15,000 men got the cards.

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