The Human Mules Of Iraq, Circumventing Sanctions On Iran

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

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.

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.

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