Iran. In Chabahar, Fear of the Virus Reduces Smuggling

A large part of the population of Sistan-Balochistan, in the south-east of Iran, engages in informal trade with its Emirati and Pakistani neighbours. However, the explosion in the number of Iranians infected with Covid-19 (5,710 dead as of April 26) has dealt a severe blow to these cross-border exchanges.

Every week, on board his trawler, Azim goes to Dubai to buy household appliances, auto parts and perfumes. This time, however, he comes home empty-handed. On the other end of the phone, he says: “The coast guard did not let me dock! I spent four days at sea for nothing and, moreover, I consumed a lot of fuel.”

The port of Chabahar is in Sistan-Balochistan, one of the poorest regions of Iran. Its population of around 120,000, mainly made up of the Baloch ethnic group, lives in part on trade with its neighbours on the other side of the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates. Throughout the region, legal trade, taxed with customs duties, is coupled with an informal economy. It is supplied by traders who bring all kinds of goods from Dubai to the holds of their boats. “We were sailing around 30 hours to get to Dubai from Chabahar. There, we loaded up to 500 tons of goods per boat, then we took the way back which takes about 50 hours. It was long, but it was worth it!" he continues.

“The world is upside down!”

For years, the UAE authorities have been turning a blind eye to these comings and goings which benefit many. But since the exponential increase in the number of patients infected with coronavirus in Iran, controls are tight and fishermen are baffled. “Until now, the virus was the last of our worries. The rest of Iran is affected, but we are not. But if we can no longer trade, then what are we going to do?”, laments Azim.

Another trader, Raeisi, also contacted by phone, made a similar observation: “the world is upside down! Before, it was the Iranian police who tracked us down and forbid us to go to Pakistan to buy products and resell them here. But since the virus, it is the Pakistani authorities who prevent us from entering Pakistan for fear that we will contaminate them. If this continues, there will soon be no more Pakistani spices or fabrics on the Chabahar market!”

Raeisi owns a small spice stand in the Chabahar market and, like many other Balochi in the region, has family in Pakistan. This border with Pakistan is only a hundred kilometres away. Raeisi often goes there by van to buy products which he then resells in Iran. The Chabahar market is full of displays containing Pakistani products. Until now the border has always been porous, this time, the Pakistani authorities prohibit the passage of traders to limit the spread of the virus. “They are afraid that the virus will be brought to them! Pakistanis can no longer even return home. We live hand to mouth. What are we going to live on?”, asks Raeisi.

“Many live on day-to-day trade”

Equally concerned is Reza, a young man from Tehran who works for the administrative authority of the province. He recalls over the phone: “The Baloch population is one of the most vulnerable in Iran. The region, in the far south-east of the country, has always lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of economic development and struggles to provide work opportunities for its population. Closing the borders will quickly prove problematic as many Balochis make a living from day-to-day trade and do not have much saving. If their daily income continues to shrink, they will find other ways to earn a living. This parallel economy did no harm to anyone but, if the situation does not improve, it would not be surprising to see an increase in the most popular illegal activities: people trafficking, drug trafficking, resale of diesel…”

“Significant margins on diesel”

Thousands of families in Sistan-Balochistan make a living from the informal resale of diesel fuel between Iran and Pakistan. “Until recently, a litre could be bought for 0.15 euro cents in Iran against a price of around 0.40 euro cents on the international market. The Pakistanis were therefore very interested in illegally buying Iranian diesel and smuggling it back to Pakistan. The profit margins were important for the traffickers and many Iranian Balochs made a living as drivers. At the wheel of Toyota pickups loaded with more than 1,000 litres of diesel, often drugged so as not to think of the danger, they follow steep paths through the mountains to hand over their cargo to the border smugglers. Since the drop in the price of a barrel on the international market, traffic has decreased because the profit margins for Pakistanis are less attractive and the Iranians must lower their selling prices. However, the poorest have no choice and continue to work even if they earn almost nothing. It is a very risky activity, there are a lot of ravines on the route and there are many road accidents.”

Reza continues: “Another problem is that traders pay UAE and Pakistani sellers in cash. But since the measures to combat the coronavirus and the closure of stores, they can no longer sell the goods they still have in stock and they therefore have no more cash. Even if the traffic was once again tolerated by the UAE and Pakistani authorities, many traders could no longer even buy goods. The virus may be eradicated but the return to normality will be difficult and the situation will take months and months to stabilise.”

“A lot of unsold for fishermen”

In Sistan-Balochistan, fishermen sell their cargo to local fishmongers who send most of the fish to other provinces of the country. But these days, the fishmongers too are helpless. While he is emptying his sole traps, Jadgal laments into the speaker of his phone: “I still manage to sell part of my catch locally but I have a lot of unsold products. Since the virus came in, people have been going out less and the economy has slowed down. We are almost at the end of the Nowruz [Iranian New Year] period, it is a good time for sales and yet I have almost no orders! Since the authorities put in place travel restrictions, inter-provincial travel has been restricted and there are no more tourists. Fish is not like meat; it spoils in a few days. Here there are almost no cold stores, we cannot keep it for long. That’s why we ship it directly to other cities. What are we going to do now? Spring has arrived and temperatures will rise. With the heat, the fish will rot even faster!”

“Our means to combat the virus are limited”

The province of Sistan-Balochistan is, for the moment, little affected by the Covid-19. Officially, only a dozen cases have been detected, even if the figures are to be taken with caution because testing is insufficient. Given the lack of health and hospital infrastructure, the spread of the virus would take its toll.

Sara, a 25-year-old nurse, works at the only hospital in town. After her day’s work, she picks up her cellphone and explains: “We have a section reserved for screening and treating patients who have contracted the coronavirus, but our resources are limited. At the moment, the situation is under control as only a few cases have been detected and these were mainly Iranian tourists from other provinces. But we fear that the number of cases will increase in the coming weeks because, although the Nowruz celebrations were attended by fewer people than usual, they still took place and with the vacation ending on April 4, people went back to work. Schools are also said to be reopening soon. This will increase the risk of contamination, as contact between people will increase. We expect an increase in the number of cases across the country. Unfortunately, here we do not have many places in the hospital!”

“Diseases linked to lack of hygiene”

For two weeks, this region known for its mild climate in the spring has been subject to changeable weather. Heavy rains destroyed roads and seventy-nine villages were affected by the floods. Many farmers, victims of the droughts of recent decades, have settled along the rivers. As they overflowed, many plots were destroyed and crops suffered, jeopardising future crops to come. “At the moment, there are nearly 700 injured and more than 2,500 people affected by the damage. Dozens of water distribution facilities were damaged. However, these villages have no health infrastructure and muddy water stagnates in the streets and in houses. Locals contract illnesses related to poor hygiene and we have to get them to the hospital. If the virus were to hit the population, we would soon be over capacity! " She continues, before ending on this note: “I must admit that we Balochs do not respect the confinement recommendations which remain relatively lax. As long as they are not really confronted with the problem, the inhabitants will continue to go out and go about their business.”