A new report has placed a spotlight on the migrant smuggling business and other illicit activities running through the Western Balkans, including drugs and money laundering. The report estimates that the migrant smuggling business alone could be worth up to €50 million per year in the region.
The Western Balkans have been a hotspot for illicity activity since the 1970s -- a "crossroads for the trafficking of many illicit commodities," notes a new report from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (Global Initiative, GI).
In 2020, smuggled migrants, drugs and arms criss-crossed the geographical area in south-eastern Europe stretching from Greece and Turkey up through North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia to the borders with Hungary and Romania.
The trade in migrant smuggling in the area alone is estimated, conservatively, at over €50 million per year, the report states. And, conversely, the more obstacles that are put in the way of crime, the more organized the criminals become.
'Spot prices: Analyzing flows of people, drugs and money'
The Global Initiative, an international NGO with headquarters in Switzerland, gathered information for Monday's report in the last quarter of 2020 and looks at findings for the whole of 2020.
For much of that year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was less official movement than there had been previously across some of these borders, but this report said that the numbers of those smuggled actually "increased" in 2020.
They found in fact, that "declarations of emergency and border closures have created humanitarian emergencies in some locations and limited freedom of movement within and between countries, while increasing the incentives for smuggling."
Smugglers increasing profits right across Europe
It is a point made also in a recent Guardian newspaper investigation in to cross-Channel migrant smuggling. One man, named as Saad, who told the Guardian he worked with "Sudanese and Kurdish mafias in Calais," thanked the British government for "our full pockets." He and others testified to the fact that the more difficulties and obstacles authorities put in their way, the more organized criminal gangs moved in to outsmart the system and charge higher prices for the crossings.
Another former Kurdish smuggler, Zoran, told the Guardian, that when he started in 2014, his bosses were charging "just a few hundred euros in 2014, but when I left it was four or five thousand for the same lorry crossing." Zoran said he left because things got "too much" for him, saying the violence and power of the mafias had got progressively worse.
It is the same story in the Western Balkans it seems. As one route has closed, others have opened up. Researchers focused on the main entry and exit points in the region. They identified the Greek city of Thessaloniki as a jumping off point for the migrants and their smugglers.
GI found that migrants tended to make "smuggling arrangements at the train station, where it is possible to find a driver for passage to the Western Balkans."
According to the report, migrants tend to be dropped off just before the Greek-North Macedonian border, cross on foot through the forest and then are picked up the other side, where they head north "along Corridor 10 which runs from Gevgelija through Veles to Skopje."
Migrants traveling through Albania, which became a much more popular route in 2020, either try to head north towards the Kosovo border, or, if they have enough money, attempt to board a boat headed to Italy from either Durres or Vlora on the coast.
Once migrants arrive in Kosovo, they take taxis, according to the report, towards the city of Mitrovica and then on into Serbia. Their destination is the border with Hungary at Subotica.
In 2018, Montenegro joined the so-called Balkan route for migrants, although researchers note that there was a slight decrease in the numbers attempting to cross the country in 2020.
The southern Bosnian borders are "rather porous" note the authors. One of the "well-established illegal smuggling routes" is along the Drina river which snakes 261 kilometers along the Serbia-BiH border.
Once in Serbia, migrants and their smugglers have a choice of four EU countries across the borders. Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. This is perhaps why UNHCR has noted that the numbers of migrants entering Serbia increased significantly in 2019. Serbia’s Minister of Interior told GI that "more than 8,500 had been stopped whilst trying to cross the Serbian border illegally," in 2020.
Since 2016 the border fences and increasingly frequent pushbacks have made it more and more difficult to enter Hungary from Serbia. The report authors found that some migrants are now heading east towards Romania in order to enter the EU. Nevertheless, the route through Hungary is more direct. Serbian police found "several tunnels, 3-7 meters deep and 15-30 meters long under the wire fence along the Serbian-Hungarian border."
Depending on the "safety of the tunnel and the likelihood of success," smuggling prices to use this route into Hungary ranged from €500 to €5,000.
'Fixers, gatekeepers and package dealers'
The report identified three types of smugglers, "fixers, gatekeepers and package dealers." The fixer are known as small-scale smugglers. They might include taxi drivers, private citizens or truck drivers, who, for a fee, will transport migrants from the countryside to big cities or vice versa. These people "rarely cross borders," noted the report.
Alternatively, fixers might not do the driving themselves, but will hook a migrant up with someone who can, warn them about where the police patrols might be and suggest a route or a safe house where migrants can stop on the way. They might be acting as "lookouts or scouts" for instance waiting at bus stations or train stations as migrants arrive.
Sometimes, but not always, the fixers might be from the same ethnicity or country as the migrant groups they mainly target. In some cases, corrupt police or border guards are also alleged to be working as fixers.
A lawyer in Albania, who helps migrants apply for asylum, said the practice must be widespread. He told the report authors: "It is impossible to move immigrants from one country to another, or to ensure their transportation within the country without the support of the local police."
The lawyer pointed out that there were police checks on all the major highways and that the migrants were often easily recognized "not only by their language, but also by their physical appearance," how can it be that they are not stopped along the way? the lawyer asked.
According to the report, at one point "the whole chain of command of the Tirana Regional Directorate of Border and Emigration was dismissed; four police officials were arrested on suspicion of being involved in the trafficking of illegal immigrants in cooperation with travel agencies."
Higher up the chain of command
Gatekeepers help migrants to cross the borders. These people are higher up in the chain of organized crime. They tend to congregate near borders which are "hardest to cross." The gatekeepers tend to be a "mix of locals with a knowledge of the terrain and the movements of the police, as well as nationals of countries where the asylum seekers and migrants originate."
Here too, the gatekeepers can act as guides but also have a network of criminal contacts. GI says that in some cases, smugglers will infiltrate the camps, say in BiH, and pose as migrants and then guide a small group across a border.
The gatekeepers might provide rafts and boats to cross river borders and control access to the tunnels. Some of the gangs own fleets of stolen or second-hand cars with number plates from different countries.
The prices paid here can range from between €150 to cross a country internally, to €3,500 to €5,000 to cross the Greek-Albanian border. This price, notes the report would "include bribes to border officials."
But the biggest fish in migrant smuggling, notes GI, are the "package dealers." These people need highly sophisticated criminal networks in order to operate, including transnational connections, documents and access to vehicles.
Migrants with money are often offered a full package to Western Europe. The whole journey, states GI can cost "anywhere from €600 to €20,000 per person depending on the starting point and the destination."
For instance, the price paid to travel from Iran or Afghanistan into any EU country "ranges from €3,000 to €3,500 per person." Pakistanis who were aiming for Croatia reported paying around €6,000 per person.
Sometimes a package might include the procurement of false documents but often it is just for transport and safe houses across various borders. The Albanian interior ministry told GI that "organized networks of traffickers, composed of Greek and Albanian citizens, are frequently involved in organizing their passage to Italy or to the border with Albania, in exchange for payment."
Similarly, Turkey has organized networks of smugglers. Some of these extend right across to Italy, through Greece, Albania, Montenegro and then by boat across the Adriatic. In one vessel stopped by police, 52 Kurdish migrants were found on board. They said they had paid "between €5,000 and €8,000 to Turkish smugglers," meaning, notes the report that "the smugglers earned around €300,000 from only one group of approximately 50 migrants." The expenses in that case were estimated at about €100,000.
According to the report, package deals were most attractive to families, from Afghanistan, Syria or Kurds from Turkey. Some men traveling alone tend to cobble their own deals together, using contacts and tips to cross borders in small groups, paying as and when they need to, rather than signing up for a whole deal. Some travel using bus and train and stay in hotels when they can.
One young man from Eritrea told the researchers, "I always tried to cross the border on my own because I do not have much money. Here in the Balkans, everything is about money." Migrants also run the risk of extortion and kidnapping, sometimes from the smugglers they have paid, or rival groups.
'Here in the Balkans, everything is about money'
Women, especially those traveling alone, run the risk of being raped, or "forced to pay for their journey with sexual favors," states the report. One single woman with a child was kept in an apartment for several months, forced to clean and prepare food for migrants who stayed there en route to their final destination.
A precise estimate of the size and value of the migrant smuggling market in the Western Balkans is difficult, note the report authors, precisely because there are so many different routes and some migrants end up attempting to cross some borders several times. In the end, in order to arrive at their estimate, the report authors multiplied the total population of migrants moving through the region with the prices paid to the traffickers.
That way, the authors counted not just one person paying once but the possibility of one person paying several times at multiple borders before they could move on to the next destination. The prices paid are taken mostly from interviews in the field with both migrants and those who work with them or write about them, including local journalists, law-enforcement officials, and NGOs.
After attempting to take into account as many of the known and unknown variables related to the success or failure of each border crossing attempt, the researchers estimate that entering the Western Balkans has generated a market estimated to be between €19.5 million and €29 million. At the border between BiH and the EU, the market is worth between €7 million and €10.5 million. At the final border, between Serbia and Hungary or Romania, the smuggling business generates between €8.5 million and €10 million.
A vicious circle
The researchers say that since people often have to pay for smugglers before they arrive and after they leave the Western Balkans, the region itself could be considered a "low-budge route." However, along with the other activities, billions are still being generated. The report notes that criminal gangs are earning "billions of euros" from smuggling drugs through the Western Balkans.
A good proportion of that money from migrants and drugs is now being laundered in the region, concludes the report. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which estimates the amount of money laundered globally, sums between €1.8 billion and €4.6 billions are currently being laundered through the Western Balkans.
The money is converted into the legitimate economy through restaurants, construction, real estate, the purchase of luxury goods, and some of it is even winding up in western Europe.
The report shows how the construction and purchase of luxury apartments has inflated the real estate prices in some parts of the Balkans, adding to the cycles of crime as local people are driven further into poverty, unable to afford the new status quo. And this, conclude the report’s authors, leads to a further weakening of the rule of law and order, and even more opportunities to exploit opportunities through criminal means.
The report "Spot prices: Analyzing flows of people, drugs and money in the Western Balkans" was written by Walter Kemp, Kristina Amerhauser and Ruggero Scaturro from the Global Initiative who carried out the research with members of civil society organizations in the Western Balkans. The report was funded, note the report’s authors, “with financial support of the United Kingdom’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.”