The Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) releases the second issue of its Annual Report on human rights violations and state-sponsored violence against Kurdish Kolber workers and shopkeepers in Iran.
This report is intended to detail for public opinion, international human rights and NGOs the fate of some of the most forgotten developments in Iran’s Kurdish society.
We in the KHRN openly state, without any forms of exaggerations, that the Kolber workers are the most abandoned section of the Iranian society. They are the poorest among Iran’s most poor Kurds.
The word ‘Kolber’ was unknown to most non-Kurds a few years ago. It went unmentioned among many human rights activists, too.
But the work and efforts by Kurdish human rights activists who kept reporting the violations carried out by Iranian border guards against the Kolber workers, the international human rights organisations and non-Kurdish activists then soon began to take an interest in the issue.
KHRN staff was busy editing the second report when the news broke out about the tragedy of an avalanche incident in Sardasht area claimed the lives of four Kolber workers.
A few days later another tragic incident took place when a Kolber was trapped for several hours under a heavy snowstorm and eventually lost his life under the snow.
The victims were all young men aged between 18 and 27 years old. They were perfectly aware of the risks of adverse weather conditions, but they did not have a choice other than taking the dangerous road under heavy snowstorm to earn a living, in order to bring back bread for their families. It is a tragedy indeed that they died and did not make it back home to their families.
Poverty has increased in the past few years parallel with the deepening financial crisis in Iran, but it is also because the Kurdish region was already hard hit by unemployment before the crisis in comparison to the rest of the other areas in Iran.
Young Kurds who had left to neighbouring provinces for work lost their jobs overnight without any compensation after their companies claimed bankruptcy as a result of the worsening financial crisis. They were left with no choice other than returning home to Kurdistan, adding to the growing number of unemployed youths across the the Kurdish areas.
Most of them chose to work as a Kolber on the borders precisely because of the lack of job opportunities.
The Kurdish region also lacks reliable unemployment statistics, but Sanandaj MP Mr Saeed Ahsan Alavi has been quoted confirming that there is an unprecedented number of unemployed in Iran;s Kurdistan.
He has been quotes as saying: ‘Kurdistan ranks 29 out of 31 provinces regarding annual income per capita and unfortunately it is not better in other fields too. Kurdistan ranks 24 in the field of industry for example. The situation in Kurdistan is really upsetting. Although there in no reliable statistics, we can estimate that more than 45% of Kurds are unemployed.”
According to the statistics released last October by the National Statistics Centre, the poorest families in Iran live in the Ilam Province with an average annual income of around 19 798 000 tomans (4950€), which is followed closely by the Kurdistan Province with an average annual income of 20 145 000 tomans (5000€).
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.
It is important to understand that the Kolber job is done in two different forms: legal and illegal.
To legally have the job it is very difficult because the rules are too strict and fixed fares are set by the Iranian government customs, which issues each Kolber with a “Circulation ID” card that allows one to go between the Iran-Iraq borders and to transport items allowed to enter Iran. The value of each journey should not exceed 1 500 000 tomans (375€), according to the rules.
The governor of Sardasht county has said that arounf 5000 Circulation ID cards have been issued for Kolber workers who follow a strict planning, according to which each daythey wait for their turn to cross the border and bring back on their back items into Iranian territory.
All the items transported by the Kolber workers are then taken to the department stores and big malls located in the biggest cities of Iran.
It is thus thanks to the Kurdish Kolber workers that such goods enter Iranian territory and available for consumers at the gigantic malls across Iran’s main metropolises.
Kolber workers earn between 50 000 (12,50€) and 100000 (25€) touman for transporting items that weight around 150 kg.
The waiting list is too long to cross the border and in best cases a Kolber would be allowed to cross three times per month.
A Kolber earns between 150 000 (37,50€) and 300 000 (75€) tomans per month while a parliamentary commission recently said that the poverty line is about 1 800000 (450€) tomans per month.
The illegal way to work this job is for the Kolbers to transport items on their own backs or on the horses’ backs and take the dangerous paths of the Kurdish mountains to bypass the border guards, while taking the journey across the Iran-Iraq border.
Such a long journey on a dangerous paths lasts for hours or sometimes several days because of the checkpoints and planned ambushes set up by Iranian armed forces targeting both the Kolber workers and their horses. The Iranian government troops patrolling the border area do not hesitate to open live rounds to kill Kolber workers.
The security forces arrests, wounds and kill Kolbers as part of their systematic crackdown on Kolber workers.
Additionally, there are the risks of natural tragic incidents such as snowstorm, flooding and other tragic deaths due to all types of adverse weather conditions across the border areas, where some Kolber workers have fallen off from the mountains, drowned or killed by hypothermia.
The “illegal” Kolber workers are not better paid than their ‘legal’ colleagues, as their annual income is estimated at around 150 000 tomans.
The Bureau of the UN Special Rapporteur on Iran highlighted this issue in two of their reports in 2011 and 2016, after which Kurdish activists had high hopes that the murder of the Kolber workers would decline or even stop, but according to KHRN figures, the tragic incidents have increased by 27% in 2016 compared to 2015.
Meanwhile, Iranian government spokesman Mr Saeed Montazer Elmahdi a few months ago said that the reports about violence against Kurdish Kolber workers were ‘”nothing other than lies”.
He “condemned” foreign media outlets of “spreading lies, wrongly labelling smugglers as Kolbers.”
He said Kolber workers “tried to weaken Iranian borders, promote illegal economy and pose danger to Iranian security by introducing weapons and drugs into Iranian territory”
This permanent denial of the situation by Iranian authorities should encourage international NGOs to take this problem all the more seriously and do something to stop it.
No official investigation or action have yet been taken against Iranian armed forces responsible for serious crimes and violations of human rights against Kurdish Kolber workers.
The KHRN has spoken with families of Kolber workers who had fallen by the bullets of Iranian army, and they say that the Iranian police forces hardly accepts registration of formal complains to begin an enquiry on the unlawful killing of their loved ones, and when a complaint is being registered, then the judiciary does everything to undermine the credibility of the cases and eventually stops the legal process to file the enquiries.
Most of the cases have not been investigated at all and nobody has been prosecuted as of yet.
The Iranian authorities have summoned and intimidated 70-year-old Kurdish Kolber worker Khazer Askarzadeh who just recently spoke to BBC Farsi journalists on the harsh working conditions of Kolber work in the border areas.
Families of the victim who are the poorest among the poor in Kurdistan and Iran cannot afford to pay a lawyer and to pursue the cases of the murder of their relatives, especially when in most cases the killed Kolber worker had been the breadwinner of a family.
Iranian border guards and officers are fully aware that they can act in complete impunity. One example is an officer who killed at least three Kolber workers Ayoub Sarouri, Ahmad Nazari, and Akram Ramezani in Kermanshah Province and he has not been questioned, let alone prosecution, so he continues to work in his post and operate as usual in the military without any judicial objections to the crimes he had committed.
Two underage Kolber workers who fell victim in 2016 were 16-year-old Borhan Alam Holo and 17-year-old Ozjan Khodaei Koran.
Over the past few years, Iranian forces have also killed hundreds of horses that belonged to Kolber workers, so even the animals are not being spared by the Iranian government’s troops that target the Kolber workers.
KHRN last year published a video that clearly showed the massacre of hundreds of horses shot dead by Iranian forces.
Also, hundreds of Kolber workers have been arrested, detained and fined, following a systematic crackdown or so-called implementation of law enforcements’ policies, but because the poor Kolber workers cannot afford to pay the fines, many of them have remained jailed in various prisons in Kurdistan and elsewhere in Iran.
The shopkeepers known as Kasibkaran distribute items brought by the Kolbers in the cities, and they face even longer jail sentences based on harsh penalties of the government’s so-called policy of “struggle against smugglers”.
Families who have lost their only bread winner are those who have been the hardest hit, as they live in an absolute poverty after the loss of a husband, father, son or a brother who had worked as a Kolber but killed while trying to earn a small income for the family.
KHRN has spoken with several of those families and they paint a gloomy picture of their situation.
Neither the Iranian government no other related parties have yet done anything substantial to help these people living in such a destitute and desperate situation tainted with absolute poverty.
KHRN is able to provide the following statistics :
29.3% of kolbers killed were single
70.3% were married
3 cities orderly among different cities had the most victims: 18 individuals in Sardasht, 18 individuals in Marivan, Orumiyeh apiece with 14 individuals.
According to our statistics,
3% of them were under 18 years old
4.5% of them were between 18 and 20
44.8% of them were between 20+ and 30
47.8% of them were were 30+
Based on gathered data over the last year, August was the bloodiest month of the year with 21 cases of death and injuries, June and July were in the second place with 13 cases.
Fifth diagram : Death-roll of kolbers killed/wounded location
Injuring or killing location has been indicated in the next diagram which is 37 percent in border zone, 73 percent in cities such as Kermanshah, Sanandaj and Orumiyeh subsidiaries villages and towns.
According to KHRN’s research, in 2016 alone, 42 Kolber workers were directly shot dead, 30 were injured, and 22 drowned or died of hypothermia and other causes.
2016 Annual report on violation of human rights of Kolber workers in Iran