People Smuggling is on the Rise in the Western Balkans

Syrian refugees cross into Hungary (Photo: Freedom House/

In the Balkans, smuggling is a profitable business that keeps refugees and migrants on the move. Particularly in Serbia, which was affected by the recent immigration wave as a transit state. There was a lot of media coverage this fall regarding conflicts between competing people-smuggler gangs in northern Serbia. Following the lethal gunfights, which claimed two lives, Serbian police initiated a long-awaited operation to attempt to dismantle these criminal organizations.

Serbia, the Safe Heaven of Refugees

In the first ten months of 2023, there were nearly 331 600 irregular border crossings detected at the EU’s external borders, up 18 percent from the previous year and the highest number since 2015, according to FRONTEX.

With over 97 300 detections, the Western Balkans was the second busiest migration route between January and October among all other routes. Serbia is an important stop along the Balkan corridor for refugees attempting to reach the European Union. Despite not being a member of the EU, the country’s location is on its periphery. This gives migrants the impression that they close to reaching their goal. The tightened border controls put refugees at the mercy of people smugglers, who not only profit handsomely from their illicit operations but also pose a threat to regional security and public order.

The “Afghan Park” in Belgrade is a major hub for migrants and smugglers operating in Serbia. The park is close to the central bus station and not too far from the city center. There, migrants are frequently seen waiting for minibuses to transport them across borders.

For the majority, the trip to the Serbian capital cost about €5000, and an additional €3000 – €4000 was needed to continue to Western Europe.

A Lucrative Business for Everyone

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) has conducted field research interviews with refugees, border police, border officials and with NGO staff in order to estimate the amount of fees paid to traffickers.  According to their analysis, in 2020 the total amount paid by the refuges to smugglers in the Western Balkans was estimated to be €50.6 million.

Many claim that the main reason the Serbian migrant smuggling network prospers is widespread corruption, even though these cases are rarely looked into. There are rumors that the smugglers and certain local police officers have some sort of relationship. It is a transnational crime, and without the help of the local government, it hardly exists at all.

Also, a known secret that smugglers engaged in collaboration with Serbian law enforcement and security organizations, according to a report by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). Based on a BIRN analysis of court cases, Serbian police and prosecution have not made much progress in prosecuting people smugglers, even after forming a task force to address the issue.

Although there have been numerous police raids and arrests, the smuggler industry is still growing, and Serbian police are only able to apprehend foot soldiers, such as taxi drivers, small-time criminals, or ordinary citizens, who are enticed by the prospect of easy money and are trying to supplement their income.


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