The porters in Iran face very high risks for a very low pay. Smuggling is a risky business as it is, but those smuggling trade in Iran are at particularly high risk and there have already been hundreds of deaths, says Iran Human Rights Monitor.
Working in the smuggling trade in Iran is a risky business – one that has cost the lives of hundreds of anonymous “human mules” who carry heavy loads of contraband on their backs across the western border with Iraq and Turkey.
According to ILNA, a semi-official Iranian news agency, a 17 year-old boy is one of the most recent victims. His name is Vahid Dolatkhah and he died at the end of August as a result of an “unnatural” accident. Opposition websites and groups documenting rights violations in Iran have claimed, however, that Dolatkhah was shot in the chest and stomach by Iranian border guards while carrying smuggled cigarettes.
Unfortunately this is not the first porter that has died in such circumstances. Hundreds of the human mules have been killed or injured in past years, according to reports by rights groups. Border guards and security agents are notorious for being a huge threat to porters. Last year, there were more than 60 deaths.
As well as the threat from border and security officials, the porters are also exposed to great natural risks. They have to travel across some very unpredictable and dangerous terrain, and weather conditions can make the threat even worse.
In the area where they work, porters risk walking into landmines that remain there from the war with Iraq during the 1980s.
The porters in Iran are very poor people who see no other way out of the dire poverty they are faced with. They are sometimes very young people – as young as only 13, sometimes very old, but even those that are at the prime of their life should not have to struggle with such heavy loads.
Current estimates state that there are around 70,000 people working as porters in Iran. Many of the porters are from the Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan provinces, and many come from Kurdish communities.
In 2016, 42 human mules in Kurdish areas were shot dead by Iranian border guards and 22 died as a result of hypothermia and other causes, according to the France-based Kurdish Human Rights Network.
In the country’s Kurdish-populated provinces, the average official unemployment rate is around 20 percent, but experts believe that the real figure is much higher, in the region of 40 to 50 percent. This is an extremely worrying situation, but the government ignores it.
Some of the people working as porters are highly educated, but because of a complete lack of investment in the region, as well as the unemployment problems, they have no choice but to traffic goods. The Kurdish community in particular faces many problems because of ethnic and religious discrimination.
“Being a kolbar is not a choice, it is a compulsion. If other jobs were available, the majority of porters would definitely not choose their extreme profession,” some 60 Kurdish civil society and political activists said in an open letter issued in January.