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Why Is Iran the Chosen Pathway for Human Traffickers?

July 16, 2018
Faramarz Davar
7 min read
Why Is Iran the Chosen Pathway for Human Traffickers?

Iran is located in a strategic place, making it a desirable pathway for human traffickers. The country neighbors 10 countries: seven share a land border with Iran (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Turkey); the other three (Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait) are separated by the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman.

Iran’s latitude, and its access to open waters via the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, its entryway to Central Asia via the Caspian Sea, its proximity to Europe via its western borders, and its relatively easy access to East Asia via the mountainous eastern borders, make it a perfect pathway, both in the north-south and east-west directions, for human traffickers. Some of these routes are mountainous, or have rivers or streams running through them, which make border control agents’ jobs almost impossible. These regions can be used by traffickers as a perfect escape route. 

For example, the border between Iran and Pakistan sits at a high altitude, and an almost impassable path. In recent years, some of the dissident militia groups located in the Sistan and Baluchistan province who are in an armed struggle against the Islamic Republic have been able to escape Iran via this route and find their way to Pakistan. Iran has taken various preventive measures to increase control over its borders. Such measures include: building walls, installing fences and digging deep ditches. However, because of the enormous length of its eastern border, such measures are both time-consuming and expensive. Thus, Iran has not taken any preventive measures with respect to its lengthy border with Afghanistan – which also has a high rate of human trafficking. 

According to Iranian officials, drug cartels in Afghanistan employ numerous individuals every year to transit drugs inside their bodies and carry them to their final destination – usually a European country. 

Other than this organized form of human trafficking, there are also people who fall victim to traffickers after leaving their home countries in pursuit of a better life outside of wars and crises, and with the hope of starting a new life in another country. 


Iran’s War on Trafficking

In order to increase the war on drug transiting, which includes human trafficking, Iran recently began working with the European Union, obtaining funds and police equipment. However, in its annual report, the US State Department asserted that Iran does not even maintain the minimum standards to combat human trafficking. Iran denies this, citing that in 2017, Iranian customs earned first place worldwide in the fight against human trafficking.

The Iranian government does not publish or make public any official data about the country’s war on human trafficking. However, from time to time, Iranian officials do supply statistics on the problem. The Islamic Republic’s official news agency published a lengthy and detailed report in March 2018, addressing the government’s fight against trafficking and the challenges it faces. This report claims that, in 2017, more than 500 cases of human trafficking, either individuals or groups, were identified.

After the US and other Western powers went to war in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, the problem of human trafficking via Iranian escape routes gained even more global attention. At the time, the Bush administration accused the Iranian government of helping Al-Qaeda members and their families to escape from Afghanistan and Pakistan via Iranian borders. Iran always denied these accusations, but there were routine reports of arrests or struggles with individuals in border towns, indicating that Iranian officials had encountered the issue of fugitive Al-Qaeda members and their families attempting to escape via Iran.

According to US officials, one of the most well-known instances of human trafficking in Iran is the movement of Al-Qaeda members and their families to and from the country. Iran has never denied entry of such fugitives to the country, but says that these persons have been either imprisoned or have returned to their home countries. This includes a son of Osama Bin Laden, and one of his wives, who both took refuge in the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran for a period until they officially left Iran for Saudi Arabia. Human traffickers were commissioned to carry out this task, but they failed, and the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia then completed the mission.   


The Cost of Trafficking

A considerable amount of human trafficking in Iran consists of illegal immigration from Afghanistan and Pakistan. In June 2016, Shargh newspaper published an investigative report on the issue and described how many of these immigrants walked for more than a thousand kilometers under dangerous conditions to reach Iran and, later on, to European countries.

Afghan media reports say that the cost of illegal immigration from Afghanistan to Eastern Europe is about US$20,000 per person. A similar report in Shargh newspaper states that the cost of such travel from Tehran to Turkey has been estimated to be around US$600 per person.

Shargh interviewed a human trafficker who told the paper that he charges his clients US$300 in advance, and they pay the remaining US$300 to a contact at the destination. In some instances the second payment might be a little more. This trafficker claimed that he relocates between 20 to 30 people from Tehran to Turkey every day. 

According to this report, human traffickers’ vehicles are easily identifiable in Tehran’s Azadi Square. What distinguishes these cars from regular passenger cars or taxies are the last two digits of their licence plates, which indicate that they belong to the West Azarbaijan  province (the border province with Turkey). Such drivers are very skilled in finding shortcuts to the Turkish border.

The main income stream of these drivers is the money they make from relocating illegal Afghan and Pakistani immigrants to Turkey, a trip that takes at least three days from Tehran to Istanbul. According to the local residents of Azadi Square, at one time there were police stations positioned all around the square, and police would make it difficult for human traffickers to operate easily and openly. Recently, however, these stations have been dismantled, and although citizens still contact police to report suspicious activities, it results in nothing more serious than a regular police patrol lasting only a few minutes, and police leave the square shortly after.

Iranian media states that in the first 20 days of the Iranian new year (beginning on March 21), approximately 600 Afghans illegally passed through Iran and entered Turkey, where they were detained and eventually deported back to Afghanistan.

In the same time period, Iranian officials also declared they had discovered more than 14 cases of human trafficking, and announced the arrest of at least 43 individuals. Afghanistan and Pakistan have the highest number of illegal immigrants in Iran, but citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia also attempt to enter the country illegally. 

The discovery and detainment of only 43 people, in contrast with 600 people who were able to successfully pass through Iranian borders, shows the Iranian officials’ inefficiency in the fight against human trafficking.

In recent years, Iran has signed agreements with some neighboring and European countries to help confront the problem of human trafficking. These countries include Turkey, Poland and Spain. Last summer, Spanish police hunted down an Iranian human trafficking gang and arrested 100 people. In this case, the traffickers were issuing fake Spanish passports for their clients in order to get them to the UK.

In its last annual report about the Iranian fight against human trafficking, the US State Department claims that the agreements between Iran and other neighboring countries were not considered successful in practice.

In this report, Iran was listed alongside the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan and South Sudan, countries that, in the eyes of the State Department, do not fulfill the minimum requirements to combat human trafficking.

The region’s crises, including the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the continuing unsafe conditions in the eastern neighboring countries (Afghanistan and Pakistan), and rising challenges with some Arab nations in the region, rule out an effective and powerful mutual cooperation in the fight against human trafficking – as such a cooperation requires enormous and honest agreements among governments. As a result, Iran has become an appealing and desirable destination for human traffickers to conduct their illegal and dangerous business, while facing little resistance or hassle.



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