The Balkan Route and COVID-19: More restrictions, more misery.

Five years ago, tens of thousands of refugees and migrants moved through South Eastern Europe trying to head West. Today, the Balkan Route is largely closed: borders have been securitized, and desperate migrants and asylum-seekers are being pushed back. The humani­tarian crisis has deepened as vulnerable groups are unable to move but have limited access to healthcare. Some of the few winners in this crisis are migrant smugglers.

While the number of migrants and asylum-seekers trying to move through the Balkans is significantly lower than during the peak of 2015, there are still people willing to take the risk. As the border between North Macedonia and Greece has become more difficult to cross, it appears that a major migrant flow has shifted to the west through Greece across its green border with Albania and then into Montenegro. In 2019, around 12 000 foreign nationals were intercepted in Albania, and around half of them applied for asylum (6 678), which is almost 11 times higher than in 2017.1 The vast majority of these asylum-seekers and migrants are from Syria, followed by Iraq, Pakistan, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Palestine and Afghanistan. This is creating an attractive market for smugglers. For example, in June 2019, Albanian police broke up a criminal group (led by a Turkish ringleader) trying to smuggle Syrians, Turks and Iraqis from Greece to Western Europe.2 The following month, a smuggling network was busted trying to transfer eight Pakistanis from Greece via Albania to Montenegro. In 10 September 2020, Albanian police broke up a smuggling ring that was trying to transfer 16 migrants to the EU.3

To counteract this shift, Frontex – the EU’s border and coast guard agency – began patrolling Albania’s border with Greece in 2019. This was the first Frontex mission in the Western Balkans. In December 2019, the Montenegrin Defence and Security Council decided to deploy the army to assist border police. The outgoing Montenegrin government considered erecting a fence along its border with Albania, using wire that it received from the Hungarian administration. It will be up to the new government to decide if the fence will be built.

Today, the number of people on the move is relatively limited due to the securitization of borders and COVID‑related lockdowns. For example, in February 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recorded 2 633 newly arrived migrants in Serbia. In March, there were 1 669 new arrivals. By April, when the pandemic hit, only 270 new arrivals were recorded.4

Asylum-seekers keep warm in an abandoned building at Bira camp in Bihac.

Asylum-seekers keep warm in an abandoned building at Bira camp in Bihac.

© Iain Burns/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The pandemic resulted in considerable restrictions within, and not only between, countries. In Serbia, a strict restraining order and curfew were put in place at 20 reception centres and centres for asylum-seekers. Refugees and migrants caught by police outside the camps were transferred back to one of those centres. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, migrants entering Republika Srpska are being encouraged to move on into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.5 This is building up pressure in the north-east of the country in the area around Bihac in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, close to the border with Croatia.6 As a result, entry to the Una-Sana Canton close to the Croatian border has been tightened to stem the influx of migrants.7

Most migrants and asylum-seekers are trying to transit the region. In Montenegro, for example, the people passing through are usually young men from Morocco, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The vast majority of those who apply for international protection leave Montenegro voluntarily – even before the decision on their application is made.

However, because of COVID-19 and the closure of the Balkan Route, it is becoming increasingly difficult for migrants and asylum-seekers to exit the region into Western Europe. This is creating a humanitarian crisis and a pool of increasingly desperate people who are vulnerable to smugglers.

The problem is most acute in the north-west of Bosnia and Herzegovina close to the border with Croatia (and therefore the entry point to the EU). An overflow of the existing camps in the Una-Sana Canton caused many people to sleep rough on the streets. This was rectified in the spring of 2020 with the opening of a new camp in Lipa. Currently, about 1 100 migrants are staying in the camp, which has capacity for 1 000.8 However, eyewitnesses told our researchers that there are still several hundred migrants in the forest around the camp.

Frustrations among migrants seem to be increasing: there have been reports of fights among different ethnic groups within the camp in Sarajevo,9 for example, related to access to key locations for begging in the capital. Local residents in Bihac and Velika Kladuša are also becoming frustrated and concerned not only about the rising numbers of migrants and refugees in their communities, but also about incidents of petty crime and fears of the spread of COVID.10 Others are profiting from the situation by renting out their apartments or providing transportation to the migrants, for example moving people from the Una-Sana Canton in the direction of Tuzla, or on to Sarajevo. The price from Velika Kladuša to Sarajevo is said to be around €100 per person.

The bottleneck in the north-west seems to be causing some asylum-seekers and migrants, who are entering Bosnia from the south, to look east rather than west: there are recent reports of migrants trying to move
from around the Klobuk border crossing in southern Bosnia across the Montenegrin border in the direction of Niksic. According to sources from the Bosnian border police, more than 400 people a month try to take this route, and smugglers are charging from €200 to €1 000 per crossing (depending on where they are dropped off).

While the prices for smuggling reportedly increased after the lifting of the lockdown in early May – due to increased demand – they have since stabilized. Indeed, the price for crossing the Drina River, on the border between Serbia and Bosnia, has even reportedly been reduced (to approximately €200 per person), which suggests that business may be slow.11

It is unclear how organized this local smuggling economy actually is. In some cases, migrants attempt to cross the border without intermediaries. In others, the activity seems to be driven by opportunistic locals, or small-time operators who know the ins and outs of the local terrain. Many of the people on the move are poor. Therefore, profits from smuggling depend on volume: either in the case of large groups moving at once, or a steady stream of small groups converging at the same crossing. Most of the people in these flows are moving from point to point, relying on tips from smugglers, friends or locals. Police are sometimes paid off to look the other way.

To travel longer distances safely, migrants turn to smugglers – if they can afford them. The longer the distance, the higher the cost. The biggest profits are being made by those who can facilitate travel through the Western Balkans, for example from Turkey and Greece, via North Macedonia or Albania, Montenegro and Serbia, into Hungary or via Bosnia and Herzegovina into Croatia or Slovenia. There is evidence to suggest that there are networks involved in transnational organized crime.12 For example, in early September 2020, five people were arrested by the Bosnian police,13 including two Serbian citizens wanted by INTERPOL for smuggling and human trafficking.


  1. Foreigners in Albania, Instat, 21 August 2020,

  2. B Koleka, Albania busts gang trafficking migrants into EU, arrests eight, Reuters, 13 June 2019,

  3. See FJALA, 10 September 2020,

  4. UNHCR Serbia update, ReliefWeb, March 2020,

  5. D Maksimovic, Nehumane politicke igre s migrantima u BiH, Deutsche Welle, 21 August 2020,čke-igre-s-migrantima-u-bih/a-54650069

  6. B.R., Nove tenzije u Velikoj Kladusi zbog migrantske krize, na ulicama veci broj policajaca, Klix, 17 August 2020,

  7. Donesena odluka: Ovo su sve zabrane koje se ticu migranata, Oslobodjenje, 19 August 2020,

  8. Peter Van der Auweraert Chief of Mission, International Organization for Migration, Western Balkans Coordinator, Twitter, 8 September 2020,

  9. N.V., U masovnoj tucnjavi u migrantskom centru Blazuj tesko povrijedena tri migranta, Klix, 13 April 2020,

  10. Eskalacija krize u Velikoj Kladusi, obracun gradana s migrantima, BHRT, 18 August 2020,

  11. A Omerovic, Srbijanska policija pomaze migrantima da predu na teritoriju BiH!, Zurnal, 7 September 2020,

  12. Infomigrants, Bosnia and Croatia arrest eight suspected migrant smugglers, 28 May 2020,

  13. GP BIH, Na području Goražda sprijeceno krijumcarenje migranata, 7 September 2020,