Kolbars carry goods across the Kurdistan Region-Iran border. Photo: Rudaw video
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Sixty-four kolbar, Kurdish cross-border porters, “the poorest among Iran’s most poor Kurds,” lost their lives in 2016, according to a new report.
“[I]n 2016 alone, 42 Kolber workers were directly shot dead, 30 were injured, and 22 drowned or died of hypothermia and other causes,” stated the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) in their annual report on the kolbar published Thursday.
The kolbar are semi-legal porters who carry goods on their backs, across the mountains from the Kurdistan Region to Iran. The France-based KHRN described the kolbar as one of the most forgotten groups, “the most abandoned section of the Iranian society. They are the poorest among Iran’s most poor Kurds.”
According to the KHRN, many young Kurds have recently taken up the heavy packs on the dangerous routes because of rising poverty rates as a deepening financial crisis in Iran has hit hard the already impoverished Kurdish regions.
They cite statistics from Sanandaj MP Saeed Ahsan Alavi who said Iran’s Kurdistan province ranks 29 out of 31 in terms of income per capita and that more than 45 percent of Kurds are unemployed.
“Kolbari has remained as the only option for Kurds living in the border towns and villages, although they are well aware of the dangers ahead constantly threatening their lives,” the rights group said.
Villagers on the border have been doing this work illegally for years and in mid-2016, Iranian authorities announced they would issue special licences to allow the transport of goods on foot without the risk of being stopped by border guards.
Only heads of families who have finished their military services, are aged 18 or older, and live within 15 kilometres of the border qualify for the special licences, the mayor of Sardasht Aziz Hassani said last August.
According to KHRN, around 5,000 of these licences, called Circulation ID, have been issued.
Kolbars can earn between $13 and $27 for 150kg of goods that are then sold in shopping malls throughout Iran’s cities, and they are limited in the number of trips they can make per month. The average income for a kolbar puts them well below the poverty line, KHRN said.
Many, therefore, take illegal routes through the mountains to avoid border guards. The journeys can last hours or days. “The Iranian government troops patrolling the border area do not hesitate to open live rounds to kill Kolber workers,” KHRN stated.
In 2016, 42 Kolbar were shot and killed, KHRN reported, noting that complaints made to Iranian authorities about the deaths go largely uninvestigated and “nobody has been prosecuted as of yet.”
Another 22 died because of the harsh and dangerous conditions on the routes they travel.
Hundreds more kolbar have been arrested, detained, and fined, the rights group reported.
The Iranian government considers the unlicenced kolbar to be smugglers involved in an illegal economy, bringing weapons and drugs into the country and posing a threat to Iranian security.