Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2018, 12:53 GMT

U.K. and Bosnia Join Forces to Halt Human Smuggling

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 September 2001
Citation / Document Symbol Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 8
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.K. and Bosnia Join Forces to Halt Human Smuggling , 1 September 2001, Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 8 , available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In an effort to curb the smuggling of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants into Western Europe via the "Balkan route," the British government dispatched a team of immigration experts to Sarajevo in September to train Bosnian border police in forgery detection and investigative techniques.

The arrival of the specialists signaled a new effort on the part of western European countries to stem the flow of illegal migrants across Bosnia's porous borders, which are crossed by an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 of the 500,000 migrants smuggled into the European Union each year. British Home Secretary David Blunkett emphasized in a statement that "illegal immigration is a common problem with long-term solutions only possible with an EU-wide joint operational response." Immigration and police officers from Denmark, Germany, Greece, Belgium, France, and Ireland are also expected to join the effort.

The teams, with experts in forgery detection, training, investigation and intelligence gathering, will work with the newly formed Bosnian State Border Service to improve surveillance on the border and step up efforts to identify forged documents.

The new effort raises questions, however, about the consequences of newly tightened borders for asylum seekers. "The emphasis on law enforcement may mean that, as in other European countries, asylum seekers are simply viewed as illegal migrants and deported," said Steve Edminister, a policy analyst for the US Committee for Refugees. "Unless the British specialists are also training border police in identifying asylum seekers, the concern is that some refugees will be returned to persecution."

The Balkan Route

Relaxed immigration standards for a number of countries, as well as inexperienced or corrupt police on Bosnia's borders, have made the Balkan country one of the five major conduits for asylum seekers, immigrants, and victims of trafficking into Western Europe. Travel to Bosnia is easy for many migrants because of the lack of visa restrictions for transit and source countries. During the 1992-95 war, Bosnia's Muslim-dominated government established closer links with other mostly Muslim countries, including Turkey, Iran, and Malaysia, enabling citizens of those countries to enter Bosnia without visas. Consequently, after the war, large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers began using Bosnia as the departure point for travel further west. Arriving as legitimate tourists, they could spend a short time in Bosnia, then contract with a middleman, whom they would pay for assistance in crossing the Bosnia-Croatia border.

The typical migrant – often from China, Tunisia, Turkey, or Iran – makes his or her way to Istanbul and then Belgrade or Sarajevo. From Bosnia, migrants travel to Croatia by walking across the border under cover of darkness, hiding in the back of a smuggler's vehicle, or taking a boat across the Sava River, which separates the two countries. Once in Croatia, they cross on foot into Slovenia, then travel farther west to Italy or Austria and beyond.

Airport arrival and departure figures reveal the scope of the problem: of 14,315 Iranians who entered Bosnia at Sarajevo Airport during 2000, only 1,226 were recorded as departing. And while more than 14,000 Turkish citizens who entered Bosnia last year by air, only 4,117 left.

Arrests of illegal migrants in Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy also demonstrate the growth in smuggling. In 2000, Croatian police caught more than 26,000 illegal migrants, while Slovenian authorities apprehended a total of 35,743 illegal migrants, a rise of 91% over the previous year. In Italy, nearly 15,000 migrants were caught trying to cross into the country illegally from Slovenia.

Bosnia's internal problems have also contributed to the movement of illegal migrants across its borders. The country's war-devastated economy makes it fertile ground for black-market businessmen and criminal gangs, for whom human smuggling is often the most lucrative work available. Weak law enforcement also plays a role: many border crossing points have little or no surveillance, while corrupt police units tolerate or facilitate clandestine cross-border traffic.

Bosnia has also become a major destination and transit country for women trafficked by the sex industry, and the government has made little effort to halt the rapid growth of trafficking within its borders. According to a recent report by the U.S. State Department (see accompanying article, "State Department Trafficking Report Assesses International Response to ‘Modern-Day Slavery'"), Bosnia does not meet minimum standards for combating trafficking in persons. "The central government's ability to deter trafficking," the report notes, "is limited by budgetary constraints, minimal border controls, inadequate, criminal laws, and corruption." Bosnia has also not established protection measures for victims of trafficking, the report observes, and often charges victims with prostitution and illegal residency before deporting them.

New efforts to stem the flow

Under pressure from Western European governments, Balkan countries have recently moved to tighten their borders. In December 2000, Bosnia imposed a visa requirement on Iran, while a readmission agreement signed with Croatia in July 2000 resulted in the return of more than 5,300 undocumented migrants to Bosnia during the last five months of the year.

When the Bosnian government began tightening immigration procedures at Sarajevo Airport, two airlines rerouted their normal Istanbul-Sarajevo flights through Tuzla, where the State Border Police had not yet begun working. After a UN spokesman accused Air Bosna of involvement in immigrant-smuggling, the nation's aviation authority suspended the two airlines' authority to fly to Tuzla. Shortly afterward, the Bosnian airline resumed service to Sarajevo.

Efforts to halt the Balkan route, however, may simply mean that illegal migrants simply find another way into Western Europe. According to the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH), arrivals of Turkish passengers at Sarajevo Airport dropped from a monthly average of 1500 in the first half of the year to 646 in July and 398 in August. While part of the drop-off reflects the temporary switch from Sarajevo to Tuzla as the main airport for arrivals from Turkey, UNMIBH reports that "illegal migrants may be avoiding Bosnia Herzegovina as news of the improved border operation reaches countries from which migrant flows originate."

Protection of Refugees in Bosnia

According to UNHCR, the "large majority" of the migrants who pass through Bosnia are most likely economic migrants, although a number of them, such as Kurds from Turkey, may be asylum seekers. If the new efforts succeed in cutting off access to western Europe to asylum seekers, the question remains whether Bosnia's poorly equipped asylum facilities may result in the refoulement of genuine refugees.

Bosnia's Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees, which is responsible for regulating the national asylum procedure and for establishing an asylum unit to make refugee status determinations, is "understaffed and underfunded," according to a UNHCR report issued in January, and lacks an effective and well-functioning asylum system. Bosnia is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention and the 1967 Protocol, and also passed a 1999 asylum law, drafted with the assistance of the UNHCR and the Council of Europe. However, the law has not been effectively implemented, both because judicial and legal authorities have not been adequately informed as to the existence of the law and its provisions, and because the institutions foreseen by the law – such as a trained asylum unit and appeal panel – have not been established. To fill the gap, UNHCR has been making status determinations for asylum seekers in Bosnia.

SOURCE: Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 8

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