February 3, 2024

By Imran Ali


LODHRAN:

On the morning of Feb 2, 2024, hundreds of mourners assembled in the Lodhran district’s Chak-53M village to lay to rest 22-year-old Zubair Baloch and 19-year-old Abu Bakar Baloch. They were among the nine Pakistani laborers shot by unidentified assailants in Iran’s Sarawan in Sistan-Baluchestan province of Iran on Jan 27, 2024.

According to grieving family members, Zubair’s maternal uncle ran a workshop in Iran. After his uncle’s demise, Zubair ventured to Iran, securing employment as a mechanic, and eventually, he brought his nephew Abu Bakar to join him. Residing in Sarawan for the past one-and-a-half years, the two of them managed to earn a combined monthly income of up to Rs100,000.

High inflation rates and lack of employment opportunities, especially in less-developed regions of South Punjab, is compelling numerous young men, like Zubair and Abu Bakar, to seek opportunities in Iran. The locals say some 60 people from Lodhran, Bahawalpur, Ahmedpur Sharqia, Muzaffargarh, Dera Ghazi Khan and Alipur districts are currently residing in Iran for work. A majority of these migrants do not have any valid visa or travel documents.

Sarawan is a popular destination for many of these laborers due to the volume of smuggled fuel and foodstuffs – illicit trade along this route drives up traffic, creating far more opportunities there than in other areas, including Pakistan.

Following the exchange of airstrikes between Iran and Pakistan on January 16 and 17, 2024, followed by a week of diplomatic tensions, South Punjabis illegally residing in Iran faced arrests in a crackdown launched by Iranian police. Pakistani immigrants expressed fear over possible hate crimes as a result of their home country’s retaliatory attack on Irani soil.

Mohsin, Zubair’s cousin said that he had talked with Zubair not too long ago. He added that Zubair and Abu Bakar had returned to their residence after playing cricket and football with some friends, and video-called him around midnight. “They told me that they were worried about the difficulties faced by Pakistanis in Iran, following the airstrikes, and they wanted to come home,” said Mohsin.

The following morning, a friend and colleague of the victims received a call that unknown assailants had attacked the workshop the night before. According to his friend, the perpetrators held several workers at gunpoint, bound their hands and feet, and checked their identity cards before opening fire on all nine Pakistanis present.

The victims’ heirs have called on the state for financial compensation, as the deceased were the sole breadwinners of their families. Mourners also regretted that no official representative attended the victims’ funerals or reached out to the aggrieved families to express condolence. They also urged the government to provide decent jobs so that men are not forced to illegally travel to Iran in search of work, and demanded accountability from Iranian authorities for failing to provide adequate security to migrants.

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