Meeting The Human Mules Of Iraq, Circumventing Sanctions On Iran
On the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, thousands of locals find work carrying contraband goods into Iran. Recently though, the job’s been getting more dangerous thanks to the Kurdish independence referendum.
The point where the goods are transferred from mules and cars onto the porters' backs. (photo: سامان عمر )
As the discussion about Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders continues, there has been more attention recently on the so-called Kurdish semi-legal “porters”, the locals who carry goods on their backs, between Iraq and Iran in northern Iraq.
There are official border crossings but for the past few decades, these locals, also known as human mules or kolbar, have been carrying goods like cosmetics, perfumes, clothing, fabrics, cigarettes, cell phones, televisions, computers and alcoholic beverages over unofficial crossings between Iran and Iraq. Some estimate there are between 68,000 and 70,000 porters working in this area, carrying about $25 billion worth of goods over the borders on their backs; and most take up the jobs because of lack of any other employment opportunities.
Some of the goods they carry are contraband not allowed into Iran under normal circumstances, others are black market goods coming over this way, to avoid taxation or sanctions. Although the porters deny it, they are also suspected of carrying alcohol into Iran and even possibly drugs.
The porters usually only bring small things back into Iraq on the way back - although some have suggested this may change soon, thanks to Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders being cut off by neighbours following the recent, fraught referendum on Kurdish independence.
The porters carry around 80kg each on their backs. Pic: Saman Omer
This illicit trade has been going for years. However recently there have been problems as Iran has increased pressure on borders with Iraqi Kurdistan and posted more security forces there.
In Iranian cities near the border including in Baneh, Sardasht and Mariwan there have been protests centred on the shooting of porters while they were on the job.
The porters are endangered by all kinds of hazards anyway, including land mines and being shot at by Iranian border patrols, including the infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. But things have been getting worse recently.
We walk five kilometres at night and we deliver our goods to porters from Iranian cities, on that side of the border. But the whole time we worry we will be shot.
NIQASH spent two days in villages in the Bashdar district, north east of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, near the Iranian centre of Sardasht, as well as paying a visit to the Haj Omran border crossing, northeast of the city of Erbil.
Kurdish businessmen start the process off by ordering and storing goods in their warehouses in the Bashdar and Soran districts, nearer the border. Often Iranians have made and paid for the orders, with the Kurdish sellers as middlemen.
“We agree with the Iranian traders to order the goods and then we transport them, according to the Iranian requests, in cars or on horses to porters waiting at the last point by the border, to carry them into Iran,” says Hawkar Ahmad, the owner of a store in Haj Omran.
At this point, there are no longer any paved roads. The route is even difficult for horses to follow, which is where the porters come in.
Arriving at the pick-up pint where porters were gathered, waiting for the day’s load, only a few of the workers were willing to speak to a journalist, and those who did, did so only under an assumed name.
The porters explain that they earn about US$30 for carrying around 80 kilograms worth of stock over the border.
Sardasht - not his real name - works at a point near Haj Omran and he is happy to detail the dangers that he and his colleagues face. The Iraqi Kurdish border guards don’t tend to cause them any problems because all of the goods are legal inside Kurdistan. However, the Iranian border guards, and even worse the IRGC fighters, are far more dangerous.
Sardasht says that IRGC guards shot at him two months ago; he was only injured but a friend he was with, was killed. Sardasht says he was taken to hospital in Erbil and he has been recovering. He is back doing the job again now, he says, because there are just no other jobs available to him.
“We walk five kilometres at night and we deliver our goods to porters from Iranian cities, who are waiting for us on that side of the border,” another porter, Omid, tells NIQASH. “But the whole time we worry we will be shot by the Pasdaran forces [a colloquial name for the IRGC].”
Omid says a number of his friends have been killed and he worries that he will be next.
Landmines, planted in this border area during the Iran-Iraq war, are also a major problem. According to a report by the Kurdish Human Rights Society - an opposition group in Iranian Kurdistan - seven porters were killed and 27 injured between January and August 2017, thanks to land mines.
Another porter, Yassin Saedi is 30 and originally from Mariwan in Iran. But he now lives in Iraqi Kurdistan. He says he first started doing this work when he was 12 years old and he would still be doing it, if he had not received a warning from Iranian security services recently. “They told me I should quit the job or leave Iran,” he told NIQASH. “That’s why I am in Iraq now, to save my life.”