Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
New Balkan Smuggling Trade
Minutes after a flight from Tehran or Istanbul touches down, an exotic mix of Turkish, Arabic and Farsi reverberates around Sarajevo airport's arrival terminal.
Once some of these arrivals pass customs control, they will simply disappear, hooking up with criminals who will attempt to smuggle them into Western Europe.
Not all of them succeed - many, like Masoud and his wife Shireen, are intercepted trying to cross the Croatian border.
The Iranian couple, in their early thirties, arrived in Sarajevo with their two young sons. They had flown in from Turkey, their home for the past five years.
In Turkey, the family had tired of visa regulations which required them to leave and re-enter the country every three months. Masoud had decided it was time to leave.
They had fled Iran after being persecuted for being members of the Bahai faith. "In Iran, if the government gets hold of a Bahai, they can kill him, " said Masoud. " Now, my wife, our children and myself have become Christians."
After being caught on the Croatian border, the family was dispatched to a refugee camp in Bosnia. But Masoud says he will continue to try to smuggle his family out of the country.
Bosnia has become a key hub for illegal immigrants trying to sneak into Western Europe.
Porous borders, an obscure visa system, weak administrative and legislative institutions and a largely ineffective local police force make the country an ideal conduit.
The immigrants are mainly Iranians, Turks, Iraqis and Tunisians, but other nationalities from Africa, Asia and the Middle East also attempt to use the country as a springboard for Western Europe.
The extent of the problem was brought to light a year ago with the setting up of the State Border Service.
The trouble is the new authority only controls Sarajevo International Airport and three frontier crossings: Doljani in the south, Izacic in the northwest, and Zvornik in the east.
The force is pitifully inadequate given that there are 426 different official and illegal crossings along the country's 1616 km border.
UN figures show that over the last year, 35,793 Iranians, Tunisians, Iraqis, Turks and Chinese entered Bosnia through Sarajevo airport alone - well over half are thought to have subsequently tried to sneak across the Croatian border.
The lack of visa requirements means most immigrants in possession of a valid passport can enter the country without a problem.
In an attempt to address the migrant problem, the authorities introduced visa restrictions for Iranians, the largest number of immigrants entering the country. As a result, their number dropped dramatically.
But just as this hole has been plugged another has opened up. The UN says there's been a growth of migrants from China and Tunisia.
Foreigners arriving in Bosnia fall into two main categories: those who enter the country legally and then claim political asylum; and economic migrants.
The former are small in number. UNHCR says only 260 people claimed asylum last year. Currently, 80 claims are being processed.
The latter, more often than not, are the ones who try to get to Western European countries through illegal channels.
These are run by international gangs, according to Frederic Larsson, programme manager at the International Office for
Migration, IOM. Criminal outfits involved in drug and weapons smuggling are also trafficking people, he says.
According to the UN and IOM, there are four basic routes. Three involve smuggling the immigrants across the Croatian border - at Bihac, Srebrenik and Brcko. A fourth ferries them from Adriatic coast to Italy.
The head of the UN mission in Bosnia, Jacques Klein, told IWPR that immigrants pay smugglers between 2,000 and 10,000 German marks, depending on their country of origin.
As part of the deal, there's an unwritten rule that, if captured, the traffickers will help immigrants twice more. Those who fail on the third attempt are left to try and make it across the frontier themselves, according to Klein.
The smuggling operation is fraught with danger. The immigrants are often duped by the smugglers and many are thought to have drowned trying to cross the Sava river into Croatia.
The key to success lies in organization and it is here that the Chinese excel, says IOM's Larsson. Unlike other groups, they have established a reliable support network in Bosnia - increasing their chances of crossing the Croatian frontier safely.
Over the past year, police forces and border services in both Bosnia and Croatia have improved their record of tracking down illegal immigrants.
Since Zagreb and Sarajevo signed an immigrant extradition agreement last July, Croatia has returned 5,361 people to Bosnia.
As with so many other things in Bosnia, the solution to the migrant smuggling problem is mainly in the hands of international organizations, since Bosnian institutions have neither the money nor the expertise to deal with it in any satisfactory manner.
According to UN officials, there is a plan to set up 50 tightly controlled international border crossings and close or control all others.
Yet for this, Bosnia would again need Western donations and loans at the moment when the international support for the war-ravaged country is declining.
Amra Kebo is a regular IWPR contributor
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
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