Balkans Migrant Smuggling Network Thwarted with Europol's Assistance

Published: 12 March 2024

Migrant Smuglers used hidden confinements in trucks to hide migrants. (Photo: Europol, License)

By Zdravko Ljubas

A year-long Europol-led investigation led to the arrest of 19 suspects in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia and the dismantling of migrant smuggling networks that had been operating for years along the so-called Balkan route.

A Bosnian woman, suspected to be the ringleader or the so-called high-value target, has been arrested in Bosnia and Herzegovina along with nine other suspects. Another nine were netted in Croatia, all characterized as “significant criminal organization members,” Europol said in a statement on Friday.

The network reportedly drew migrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia, ingeniously concealing them within customized wagon cars – beneath vehicle floors, making their transport extremely dangerous.

After passing crucial checkpoints, the smugglers would then proceed to transport migrants further to Western European countries using a variety of methods, including cars, vans, or even the back of a lorry.

The crackdown peaked with two synchronized action days on Jan. 24 and Feb. 6, involving the search of 10 locations across Bosnia and Croatia. Authorities seized vehicles, electronic devices, and approximately 65,000 euro in cash (around US$71,000) during the operations, according to the statement.

Europol underscores that in 2023, the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia was the second most frequented crossing point for smugglers in the Balkans. Moreover, in 2024, criminal activities along the Bosnia and Herzegovina-Croatia-Slovenia route have escalated significantly.

The probe uncovered a web of multiple networks across the region, with its leaders suspected to operate from Bosnia, Croatia and neighboring countries, but also Germany, and Turkey, suggesting the involvement of approximately 40 active networks enticing individuals for various roles in the smuggling activities.

Before the action days took place, Croatian authorities apprehended 28 suspected smugglers as part of the ongoing investigation.

Simultaneously with the announcement of the operation’s results, the Croatian Interior Ministry and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) unveiled the establishment of a joint operational group named “ZeBRa” dedicated to combating illegal migration.

“We launched this operational action because we have demonstrated that it (migrant smuggling) poses a significant challenge to the security of Europe,” said Davor Božinović, Croatian Interior Minister.

He emphasized that Croatian law enforcement has apprehended over 8,000 migrant smugglers and their associates since 2016.

In a separate operation in Greece, Europol joined forces with the country’s Aliens Division of Attica to bust a criminal syndicate specializing in crafting top-tier fake travel and ID papers.

These documents were instrumental in smuggling migrants across EU borders and legitimizing their residency in their chosen destination nations, according to Europol.

In a sweeping crackdown, Greek authorities shuttered four underground printing facilities, seizing a trove of 4,650 fake documents valued at 600,000 euro ($655,370) on the black market.

The documents unearthed in the raids were primarily counterfeit EU documents, mimicking IDs from a range of countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Norway, as well as Colombia and Ukraine, Europol reported.

The operation also netted high-tech laser printers, electronic equipment, forgery materials, and over 20,000 euro ($21,850) in cash.

Greek law enforcement also arrested 11 suspects, including three Palestinians, three Latvians, two Iranians, two Syrians and one Lebanese national.

The investigation exposed a sophisticated criminal network that had been active since September 2023, using cutting-edge tools like laser printing devices and specialized software to produce top-tier counterfeit travel and identification documents, according to the statement.

The forgers, operating their own printing establishments, cooperated on a case-to-case basis, primarily in exchanging raw materials or in crafting specialized documents.

They allegedly refrained from direct interactions with clients, irregular migrants, or other smuggling networks, opting instead for intermediaries to finalize transactions and deliver forged documents on their behalf.

Priced between 400 and 1,200 euro ($437 to 1,310), these falsified documents presented formidable challenges for detection, reflecting the network’s meticulous attention to detail and pursuit of profit, according to Europol.