Mvoices invites a variety of people, including equal rights activists, researchers, and journalists, to share their experiences and their views on the challenges, achievements and rights of the religious minorities and civil society in Iran at the Mvoices’ “Carte Blanche”.
In this issue, Awin Mostafa Zadeh / Kurdpa Human Rights Organization writes the story of “new slaves” in Iran, “Koolbars”.The Kurds suffer from discrimination for being both Sunni Muslims as well as an ethnic group in Iran.
The people living in Iranian Kurdistan have been systematically targeted by economic deprivation, such that on the one hand Koolbari is imposed on them but on the other hand they are killed because of it. Koolbari – as an imposed livelihood and the only way to earn money – could undoubtedly be regarded as a type of slavery.
More importantly, Koolbari targets human dignity. Koolbars have no rights, being forced either to engage in Koolbari or to die. The way they are treated by the Iranian regime is very inhumane and stands as a clear example of human rights violations and modern slavery.
“Koolbar” is a word referring to a person who carries undeclared goods from Iranian merchants across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran and is paid according to the weight and type of cargo.
“Koolbari” is not a job but, rather, an imposed and very exhausting form of labor that is required to afford the bare necessities of life for Kurds living in the border areas of Kermanshah, Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan and Ilam. These people are forced to perform this labor due to the lack of job opportunities and the shadow of economic underdevelopment.Evin Mostafa Zadeh
“Koolbari” is not a job but, rather, an imposed and very exhausting form of labor that is required to afford the bare necessities of life for Kurds living in the border areas of Kermanshah, Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan and Ilam. These people are forced to perform this labor due to the lack of job opportunities and the shadow of economic underdevelopment.
Depending on the number of informal border markets in each of these provinces, any number of Koolbari opportunities are available for the local people.
Koolbars usually carry goods such as spare parts, raw materials, small home appliances, cosmetics, fabrics, rubber, cereals, and so on on their backs (Kool) and sometimes on mules across the border.
On average, Koolbars travel 15 km each time using arduous and unsafe routes.
According to official statistics, the number of Koolbars in Kurdistan, Ilam, Kermanshah, and West Azerbaijan is between 80,000 and 170,000. Nowadays, Koolbari is not limited to any particular gender or age group and can be seen among women, children and men between the ages of 13 and 70. Even some medal-winning athletes, such as Mehdi Khosravi and Taha Ghaffari, and people with doctoral and master’s degrees have been forced into Koolbari.
Studies show that Koolbars are paid between 100,000 and 350,000 tomans in cash each time they carry a load across the border (one dollar=28000 tomans).
Nowadays, Koolbari is not limited to any particular gender or age group and can be seen among women, children and men between the ages of 13 and 70. Even some medal-winning athletes, such as Mehdi Khosravi and Taha Ghaffari, and people with doctoral and master’s degrees have been forced into Koolbari.
Koolbars work at the risk of their lives and face many dangers in order to feed their families, such as live ammunition fired by the Iranian armed forces, falling from heights, landmine explosions, drowning in rivers, frostbite, avalanche, beating by the border guards, and even road accidents. Among all of these risks, direct fire of the regime’s military forces has been the main cause of Koolbars’ dying, representing more than 70-80% of deaths.
Koolbars do not enjoy the right to social security or health insurance guaranteeing them affordable medical care. If wounded, they must pay their medical bills themselves. They are often detained for illegal border crossing and smuggling and are subject to fines and imprisonment. In some cases, they are even asked to pay back the cost of bullets that have been fired at them.
According to statistics reported by the Kurdpa Human Rights Organization, the numbers of Koolbars killed and wounded during the last 10 years (2012 through August 15, 2021) are as follows:
|2021 (up to Aug. 15)
We can summarize the available data as follows:
The number of killed and wounded Koolbars by causes (detailed list):
Koolbari, a form of forced Labor following imposed Poverty
Poverty is the most important factor in turning to Koolbari. Lack of infrastructure and insufficient investment to address the problems, scarce resource allocation based on the policy of neglecting the minority areas in favor of the central areas, and lack of job opportunities and planning for sustainable employment leading to widespread unemployment, all in the light of the government’s “security perspective” on the Kurdish question, can be considered the main causes for the extreme and structuralized poverty in Kurdistan .
Economic indicators published by relevant organizations in Iran confirm the claims above. According to the statistics, the Iranian Kurdish region of Iran, from West Azerbaijan to Ilam, is one of the most underdeveloped areas in the country and suffers from structural poverty and deprivation in all social, political, cultural and economic aspects compared to central Iran.
Having sufficient food to eat, this most basic human need, is the main reason for the Kurdish poor of Iran to take a job as a “Kolbar”. Koolbar, literally means a person who carries a heavy load on their back.@un @UNPOintl @amnestynl @amnesty @EUCouncil #StopKillingTheKolbars pic.twitter.com/PXGmZ8EZ0W
— Farzad Seifikaran (@FSeifikaran) February 19, 2019
“Security Perspective” and Lack of Development
Kurdistan has always faced the government’s “security perspective” due to the existence of opposition parties and has consequently suffered from structural deprivation and backwardness. The regime both imposes Kolbari and gives its armed forces permission to “fire at will” on Koolbars on the pretext of the existence of opposition parties at the border and providing “security” to Kurdistan. It should be noted that these forces are granted judicial immunity.
Systematic Killing of Koolbars and Impunity of Perpetrators
Osman Mazin, Iranian Kurdistan-based attorney at law, says about the killing of Koolbars: “Unfortunately, so far, not only has no security officer ever been questioned or summoned in connection with extrajudicial killing of Koolbars, but the perpetrators have complete impunity; beyond that, they are even receiving the full support to do so.”
Kolbari is not a Crime under Iranian Law
“There is no criminal law in Iran forbidding koolbari and no one can be killed or murdered for this, so a law enforcement officer has no right to take the life of innocent people without a decision issued by a competent judicial authority,” said Osman Mazin.
Iranian Officials and Kolbari Issue
Koolbars are still treated like smugglers, and no one takes responsibility for killing them, nor the imposition of Kolbari and the dire economic situation in border areas. However, in Iranian law, Kolbari has not been defined as a crime. Surprisingly, Khamenei has also declared that he does not consider Kolbars to be smugglers and that it is acceptance not to deal with this issue, as what they do is not significant in comparison to 98% of the smuggling that is done via main and legal routes of the country, which officials show no effort to address.
Plans to end Koolbari
Since 2010, various plans have been announced by the authorities to end Koolbari and create jobs in border areas, but so far no plan has been implemented, and the Koolbari phenomenon continues in Kurdistan. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, I saw a large group of construction workers forced into Koolbari due to widespread unemployment and poverty.
Although some Koolbars have been issued “Smart Cards”, only a small group of them are involved in this plan; moreover, it has not been able to improve the economic and living conditions in the area. Perhaps in the near future these cards will even be taken back from Koolbars under various “security” pretexts.