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Countries Unite to Tackle Smuggling of Migrants in South Eastern Europe

Countries Unite to Tackle Smuggling of Migrants in South Eastern Europe

Skopje, (North Macedonia) 9-10 December 2021 – Crimes that cross borders can only be stopped through cross border cooperation. This was the main message of the Regional Expert Group Meeting on countering migrant smuggling in Skopje, North Macedonia.

The event, which was organised by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, brought together over 40 representatives from 12 countries in the South Eastern Europe region.

“Migrant smuggling is a global and profitable form of organized crime that endangers the safety, security and lives of the migrants involved. We can only combat this crime and protect the migrants through international cooperation,” said Davor Raus, the UNODC Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice expert who led the meeting.

People resort to smugglers when they need to escape poverty, natural disaster, conflict, or persecution or are seeking employment, education and family reunification opportunities but do not have the options or resources for regular migration.   

The South Eastern Europe region lies at the crossroads of the Western Balkan migration route, which is one of the main migratory paths into Europe.

In 2020, irregular migrants who were detected in the region came primarily from Syria, India, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many had been temporarily staying in Greece or Turkey and had used the services of smugglers to get to Western Europe.

During the two-day meeting, law enforcement officers and prosecutors presented examples of migrant smuggling investigations from their countries and highlighted the relevance of international cooperation.

The Southeast European Law Enforcement Center (SELEC), which supports its member states to combat transborder crime, shared results of several recent joint operations.

One focussed on forged passports and fake banknotes. It involved the smuggling of 1,000 migrants and an estimated 15 million USD in proceeds for the criminal network. Twelve months of cooperation led to 53 arrests among the perpetrators.  

Erwann Tor, Regional Expert on Human Trafficking in South Eastern Europe at the Permanent Mission of France to the UN in Vienna, Austria, discussed the links between human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants.

“These are two distinct crimes, but often interrelated. Migrants represent 50% of the victims of human trafficking detected in Central and South Eastern Europe,” he said.

“17% of victims detected in Western and Southern Europe are citizens of Central and South-Eastern Europe, and the vast majority used the services of smugglers during their journey.”

Undocumented migrants are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. Their desperation to find or retain employment and their fear of being repatriated can be abused by traffickers who exploit them, explained Mr. Tor.

A further topic at the meeting was how to deal with offences involving acts of violence and abuse and infringements of human rights experienced by migrants during or after a transnational migrant smuggling operation.

UNODC Associate Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer Martin Hemmi presented the findings of a recent UNODC study. The study shows that migrants who use smuggling networks are often subjected to acts of violence, torture, rape, and kidnapping.

“During the meeting, we discussed the protection and assistance needs of smuggled migrants and the legal and practical barriers that prevent migrants from accessing justice for crimes committed against them,” he said. 

Civil society organizations that support migrants in South Eastern Europe also provided eye witness reports on the type of aggravations migrants have to endure.

“These included cases where smugglers had taken advantage of migrant boys and girls for sexual exploitation and situations in which migrants in transit were lacking the most basic needs such as warm clothes, food, and a place to stay,” said Mr. Hemmi. 

Duco van Heel, the Vulnerable Groups Coordinator of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also stressed the need for collaboration.

“We cannot do it alone. We need to work together, learn from each other, and use our expertise to fight organized crime groups that deal with migrant smuggling and trafficking in persons and protect the victims of these actions,” he said.

Other panellists included representatives from the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the European Commission, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

National authorities from participating countries were represented by border officials, police officers and investigators, criminal justice experts and members of non-governmental organizations.  

UNODC is now working on a report that will present the conclusions and recommendations from this Regional Expert Group Meeting and a set of concrete actions for future engagement at the bilateral, regional, and international level.

Further information

The following countries took part in the regional meeting: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo (UNSCR 1244), Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. Experts from France, Spain and Italy also contributed to the event.



This “Eyes on Trafficking” story is reprinted from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.


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