1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa
  3. Iraq

Parts of north rely on smuggling to survive

[Iraq] Master smuggler Osman Abdulkerim standing in front of his Bashmakh storeroom stocked full of high quality Ahmad tea in Sulaymaniyah province, northern Iraq. IRIN
Smuggler Osman Abdulkerim standing in front of his Bashmakh storeroom stocked full of high quality Ahmad tea in Sulaymaniyah province.
Situated in a thin stretch of mountain country that protrudes into Iran like an accusing finger, Penjwin village in the northern Iraqi governorate of Sulaymaniyah seems largely to have been forgotten by the humanitarian community. The most heavily mined part of the Iraqi Kurdish region, it has its fair share of de-mining organisations, plus a clinic and prosthesis centre run by Emergency and Handicap International respectively. Apart from that, the only project under way is for a children's activity centre providing lessons in English, computers, art and music. Set in premises provided by the NGO Peace Winds Japan and bolstered by a donation from the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, the centre looks set to open this autumn. If enough teachers can be found, that is. "I'm not sure we have the staff here in Penjwin to make a project like this work", local secondary school teacher Aziz Mohamed told IRIN at the centre. "And we would need funds to persuade teachers to travel two hours from Sulaymaniyah to work here." Now that the summer holidays have started, Mohamed spends all the time he can helping workmen push on with renovations. "This is exactly what this area needs," he said. "We're planning to build dormitories so that kids can stay the night if necessary." There are 160 villages in this district, with nothing for the children to do except help their parents in the fields," he added. "Or smuggle." Down in the oily lorry park next to Bashmakh border post, five miles west of Penjwin, you can see what he means. As evening falls over the surrounding hills, men aged anywhere between 12 and 60 file across fields to gather within spitting distance of the official border crossing. Tonight they will cross into Iran. Penjwin has been a smuggling hub for as long as anyone can remember. Now, the men standing at Bashmakh say, there's more need for it than ever before. "Without this border, we'd starve", said Mohamed Kerim, an Iranian Kurd from the nearby town of Meriwan. On the Iraqi side of the border, engineering student Behman Fathi added, "you're either a party man, in which case you join the militia or the police, or you're not, in which case you do what we are doing." The same cynicism pervades a group of Iraqi Kurdish businessmen nervously awaiting the arrival of their shipments. "Supposedly we now live in a free market Iraq," said one Sulaymaniyah-based cake shop owner who asked not to be named. "But the only ones benefiting from legal trade are those close to the party leaders." The pasteurised cream he needs for his business is not made in Iraq. Accredited businessmen are able to make use of the small amounts imported from Iran. Others, like him, buy it on the black market. For large-scale tradesmen like Osman Abdulkerim, who works out of a depot in Bashmakh village, smuggling can be very lucrative. Since 1996, he has exported tea to Iran in 40 mt shipments, often three times a week. "Depending on the quality of the tea," he told IRIN, "you can make a profit of up to US $300 a ton." Out of that, he has to pay duty to the Kurdish authorities and individual smugglers. Their worst fear is of being caught by Iranian border guards and having their consignment confiscated. "I've heard of men having to work for a year to compensate for a single confiscation", said Behman Fathi. It's an eventuality that has not put off Hiwa Aziz Mohamed. A refugee in the Iranian camp at Dizli, he is originally from the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. "I moved to Halabja when the Baathist regime kicked me out of my house, but fled to Iran after the chemical bombings in 1988," he explained. "I want to go back, but how? I have no house to go to, and nobody is offering me any help," he said. "By smuggling at least I might eventually get enough money together to go back home."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article

Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.

Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.

We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.

Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian. 

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.

Join