As the migrant smuggling business booms in Bosnia, the number of people convicted of this crime rose in 2019 compared to the year before.
Bosnia’s State Prosecution filed nearly 60 indictments against more than 100 people for human smuggling in the past two years, while the country’s top court, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, pronounced around 60 verdicts, sentencing nearly 80 defendants over the same period.
Data gathered by the BIRN show that the prosecution accused 46 people of human smuggling in 2019, which was ten less than in the previous year.
However, the State Court handed down convictions for 47 people in the past year, more than in 2018, when 30 people were sentenced for those same crimes.
Most smugglers were discovered in the Trebinje area, in southeastern Bosnia. The majority were Bosnian citizens. Most foreign smugglers were from Serbia or Montenegro.
More than 90 per cent of judgments were pronounced on the basis of plea agreements. Sanctions ranged from conditional sentences to three years in prison. Ancillary penalties of several dozen thousands euros were also imposed and the proceeds of migrant smuggling worth over 10,000 euros were seized, along with several vehicles used to execute the crimes. Two people were acquitted at first instance.
The situation with thousands of migrants and refugees in Bosnia on their way to the EU remains complex. Most are unable to leave non-EU Bosnia and enter EU-member Croatia, turning them into potential targets for smugglers.
Bosnia has thus become a bottleneck on the so-called Balkan route to Western Europe for migrants and refugees, with more than 60,000 registered temporarily in the country in the past two years.
The precise number of those still in Bosnia is hard to confirm, but is estimated to range between 4,000 and 6,000 – which means that most of those who declared an intention to claim asylum in Bosnia have already left and moved on.
Jasmin Ahic, a professor at the Sarajevo Faculty for Criminalistics, Criminology and Security Studies, said smuggling is planned in stages through certain areas or countries, starting from Greece, via Albania, Montenegro, Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Out of 80 people sentenced in Bosnia over the past two years, more than a half received suspended sentences, while fines of up to 5,000 euros were imposed.
In 2019 the longest sentence was pronounced against Pakistani national Usman-Ali Maqsood-Ahmed, who was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 3,400 euros following a guilt admission agreement, for having helped to organise a smuggling operation.
He was charged with having been an organiser of a group that smuggled at least 46 citizens of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and India during 2018.
According to the Prosecution, Maqsood-Ahmed falsely introduced himself as a migrant in order to mingle and establish contacts with migrants, who were willing to pay large amounts of money to be smuggled into the European Union.
Ahic says that criminal policy, irrespective of the increasing number of migrants in Bosnia, is standardized and in line with the standards of the European Union and other countries.
“We have transitioned from a phase in which ‘taxi drivers’ who offered illegal or legal services, not understanding that transferring migrants from point A to B, be it inside the country and particularly abroad, was a serious criminal act, to a phase in which things have crystallized, so in fact we have smaller and also organised criminal groups, which have switched from amateurism to professionalism,” Ahic said.
According to him, further collaboration between domestic and international investigative bodies is the only way to prevent organised human smuggling, but attempts would still be made by individuals or small groups in border areas, and that trend will continue, he warned.
Police hunt for suspects in border areas:
In the past two years, most proceedings were the result of work by police agencies whose reports noted perpetrators in the border areas or the interior of the country, and who were caught while driving migrants for money. Some arrests were a result of police actions targeted at cracking organised groups dealing with migrant smuggling, data collected by BIRN shows.
According to Border Police data, 80 human smuggling cases and 71 crime reports were filed with prosecutors’ offices in the first 11 months of 2019. In total, 120 suspects were named, including 22 foreign citizens and three unidentified perpetrators.
While police filed criminal reports against Bosnian citizens, they handed foreign suspects over to the jurisdiction of the Prosecution.
Slobodan Ujic, director of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, said it was up to the Prosecution to decide on measures to be taken against migrants, who were the subjects of smuggling at the time of discovery.
“The Prosecution presents its opinion on whether they are needed as witnesses in the case in the future, so the Service can take measures to place them under control. This may be a mild form of control at a reception centre or full control at an immigration centre,” he said.
“It all depends, and the Prosecution says whether they will need them and for which period. Once they have given statements and performed identification, the Prosecution may not need them anymore, so they enter the normal regular procedures,” Ujic added.