Smugglers Take Over the Balkan Route

Balkans Route migrants refugeees
Migrants wait for a train heading to Serbia at the Gevgelija railway station, on the Macedonian-Greek border on July 28, 2015.

European politicians want to prevent refugees from entering the European Union through the Balkans. Human smugglers there are doing a booming business.

About a year ago, European Union countries Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, together with Serbia and Macedonia, closed off the refugee route into the European Union. Today, the Austrian government is taking credit for the idea, and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, a member of the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), calls it a big success in stemming the tide of refugees.

But the one-sided closing of the Balkan route had dramatic consequences. Chaos erupted in Greece because refugees and migrants were stuck there. But most of all, it meant a booming business for smuggler gangs in the Balkans. Last year, organized crime earned about €2 billion ($2.1 billion) with human smuggling along these borders, according to an estimate by Austrian security officials that is based on Europol data.

Since the borders were closed and Turkey began taking back refugees from Greece, the number of migrants on the route has declined from a high of 60,000 a month to the latest figure of less than 2,000. But those who still try to make it through are even more dependent than before on the services of criminals.

“Human smugglers are doing a booming business now, because there are no longer any legal ways to reach Austria or Germany through southeastern Europe,” said Markus Koth, who works in Athens as the coordinator for a church welfare group that provides disaster assistance. This has made the illegal route to Germany or Austria through southeastern Europe more expensive. “The voyage from Turkey to Greece costs $600 to $700. Then another €1,500 is payable for the trip from Greece to Serbia, through Macedonia,” said Mr. Koth.

Despite Austrian Foreign Minister Kurz’s statements to the contrary, the Balkan route is not truly sealed off, said Gerald Tatzgern of the Austrian Federal Criminal Office for Human Trafficking. The migrants’ journeys have become “more diverse and dangerous,” E.U. border agency Frontex recently found. As a result, more illegal immigrants are remaining undiscovered.

Nickelsdorf is a town in Austria’s Burgenland region, near the border with Hungary. Cars crawl westward here along the autobahn between Budapest and Vienna, many of them driven by Hungarian commuters. Austrian border agents randomly check vehicles, especially larger ones. And a route that involves a small detour through Slovakia is monitored even less. The Austrians are not yet using drones, including those with night vision equipment, and the smugglers know this. “Refugees are seeping in every day,” an Austrian diplomat concedes.

The gangs operating in the Balkans have become more professional since the route was sealed off, so as to bring their “customers” illegally to Austria and Germany. According to Europol’s director, Rob Wainwright, there is a detailed division of labor in the large human smuggling syndicates. “They have specialists to recruit migrants, and specialists for transport, financing and money laundering, and they are very modern in the way they’re organized,” said the head of the E.U. law enforcement agency.

“These organized crime networks rake in huge profits from massive immigration.”

Rob Wainwright, Director, Europol

The migrant smuggling business is booming, and not just in southeastern Europe. According to Europol, the authorities have identified 17,400 new smugglers, out of a total of at least 50,000. Surveys have shown that more than 90 percent of all illegal immigrants have used these services. “These organized crime networks rake in huge profits from massive immigration,” said Mr. Wainwright. Human smuggling has become the fastest-growing business for criminals in the last two years, he noted. According to Mr. Wainwright, thousands of criminals, searching for quick profits, have turned from drug to people smuggling.

European politicians are tired of doing nothing. At a summit meeting in early February, European Union leaders agreed on a large number of measures designed to “destroy the smugglers’ business model.” They are mainly concerned about flows of migrants along the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy. To destroy the smuggling structures, European agencies would cooperate with the Libyan coast guard and other North African countries. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a Christian Democrat, advocates returning captured migrants to reception camps on African soil to deprive them of the incentive to make the illegal voyage.

Chancellor Angela Merkel justified the refugee agreement with Turkey with the desire to put a stop to the smugglers. According to the E.U. border agency, the pact has “undermined” the business model of the networks operating in the Aegean Sea. Efforts to secure the E.U.’s external borders were also greatly increased elsewhere in southeastern Europe. Bulgaria intends to complete a border fence by the middle of the year that would protect almost two-thirds of its border with Turkey. Hungary has already announced that after building a fence on the border with Serbia, it now intends to build on the Romanian border, as well.

Because of these various efforts, thousands of refugees are stuck in the Balkans. Aid organizations estimate that about 8,000 people are stuck in Serbia, of which 6,500 live in Serbian government camps. From Greece, where authorities say 62,000 asylum seekers are still living, thousands of refugees want to continue to Western Europe. “The winter has exacerbated the humanitarian conditions in the Balkans and Greece. This means that people want to move on, partly with the help of smugglers,” said church welfare group coordinator Mr. Koth.

The migrants in the Balkans increasingly include men traveling alone, who are perceived as a security risk by the local population. The authorities, especially in Hungary, give preference to families seeking to enter the country. “For young Afghan men, for example, smugglers are the only option to move ahead,” said one source.


Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s Vienna correspondent. Till Hoppe is an editor based in Brussels. To contact them:,

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