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Bosnian Smuggling Revival

The booming traffic in illegal immigrants through Bosnia could scupper the nation's chances of European integration
By Janez Kovac

Sarajevo police made a chance discovery last weekend when a group of 13 Bangladeshis were forced out of hiding to seek medical help. The group had entered the country from Serbia and have now joined dozens of other illegal immigrants at a refugee centre in Rakovica just outside the capital.


Over the last six months, Bosnian police have rounded up 600 illegal immigrants trying to cross the country. The largest group are Iranians, but people from Turkey (mostly Kurds), Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Moldova and Macedonia have also been arrested.


Local and international officials estimate ten times that number successfully completed their journey across Bosnia in the same period. Bosnian police reckon there are at least four well-established routes between the republic and Croatia.


Bosnia lies across long established heroin smuggling routes between the Middle East and Europe, closed off for decades by the heavily patrolled frontiers of the Cold War. The conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, for obvious reasons, prevented the immediate revival of such routes. The republic's porous borders and the relative stability of the region over the last year have led to the steady increase in traffickingof drugs and now people.


And just as countries like the Czech Republic are now struggling to cope with illegal immigrants crossing the now lightly guarded frontiers between East and West, so too the countries of the former Yugoslavia now lack the personnel and equipment to adequately counter smuggling activity across their borders.


Although the security situation in Bosnia has improved over the last 18 months, the country remains divided along ethnic lines into two entities. The Bosnian Serb, Muslim and Croat police, judiciary and administrations do not co-operate as fully as they might. A joint state level border service was only established in November 1999 under strong international pressure.


As a result, the trade in illegal immigrants has blossomed over the last 18 months.


Eleven Iranians and their Bosnian guide were arrested recently near the north-western Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa. The Iranians had been trying to cross into Croatia, having reached Bosnia through Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia concealed in a truck.


Illegal immigrants from the Far East, especially China, often enter the region through Belgrade. Due to the friendly relations between Yugoslavia and Beijing, Chinese visitors do not need visas. The favoured route for those determined to make their way into Western Europe is via the Serbian part of Bosnia and onto Croatia.


In the twelve months to May 2000, Croatian police arrested 6,000 illegal immigrants compared to 4,500 for the same period the previous year. According to Croatian Interior Minister ,Sime Lucin, arrests in the first quarter of this year have doubled.


A senior Croatian immigration official has appealed to the international community for help in addressing the problem. The Croatian border service, the official said, lacks the necessary personnel and equipment to adequately monitor the frontier.


Last week Croatian police discovered 24 Iranian illegal immigrants, including five children, hidden in a truck near the border town of Slavonski Brod. The human cargo was only found when the Croatian driver stopped at a tollbooth on the Zagreb-Lipovac highway.


During the week June 25-July 2, a total of 124 illegal immigrants were arrested while travelling through the country. Most had entered from Bosnia or Yugoslavia and were on route to Western Europe.


Bosnia shares a 500-mile long frontier with Croatia, most of which is unguarded. There are at least 400 known illegal crossing points, which go largely unchecked.


The United Nations Police Task Force and other international organisations are helping the Bosnian police to focus more on the organisers of the trade, providing training and specialised equipment.


But progress is painfully slow. Western diplomats have indicated Bosnia's failure to halt the traffic in illegal immigrants could jeopardise entry into Europe's joint institutions. The pressure on the already devastated country to up police and border patrol activity is intense. The financial costs, not least for housing and deporting detained illegal immigrants, are also high and rising.


Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor


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