Bosnia and Herzegovina faces law enforcement challenges in countering human smuggling.

In 2015, thousands of refugees and migrants moved along the so-called Balkans route, trying to reach Western Europe. While the issue has received less attention in recent years, the number of people on the move through the region increased in 2022 and with it concern about what to do. Since it is now much more difficult to transit the region than it was five years ago, because of increased border controls (including more pushbacks)1 and the erection of fences in some areas, there is an increased demand for smugglers to facilitate border crossings. Indeed, since Croatia joined the Schengen area on 1 January 2023, its border with Bosnia and Herzegovina takes on added significance as the EU’s outer border. The market for migrant smuggling was estimated by the GI-TOC in 2020 to have a value of at least €50 million.2 One of the most lucrative routes for smugglers is between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.3

Bosnia and Herzegovina remains one of the key transit countries through the Western Balkans. To discuss the law enforcement challenges of coping with migrant smuggling, the GI-TOC teamed up with the International Police Association in Bosnia and Herzegovina to co-organize the seventh Balkan Adriatic international conference.4 The meeting, held in Sarajevo from 18 to 20 November 2022 in partnership with the Ministry of Interior Affairs of the Canton of Sarajevo, brought together over 110 representatives from law enforcement and security agencies from countries along the Balkans route as well as key destination countries.5 Held under Chatham House rules, the meeting enabled participants to share views on dealing with common challenges, enhancing cross-border cooperation and improving coordination between relevant domestic stakeholders, particularly between law enforcement and civil society.

Delegates of the seventh Balkan Adriatic international conference, held in Sarajevo in November 2022.

Delegates of the seventh Balkan Adriatic international conference, held in Sarajevo in November 2022.

Photo: supplied

Among the points discussed was the origin countries of people on the move through the Western Balkans (such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Burundi, Cuba, Iran and Pakistan), as well as the modalities of smuggling migrants. There are reports of a growing number of Russian citizens arriving by plane – for example, from Istanbul and Belgrade – and trying to transit Bosnia and Herzegovina towards the EU.6 According to police estimates, in 2022, over 90%7 of migrants entering Bosnia and Herzegovina paid to be smuggled across the border from Serbia.8 There have also been reports of criminal groups selling weapons to migrants. These weapons are allegedly used to enable some migrants to engage in criminal activity, including extortion, smuggling their compatriots or dealing in cell phones, cigarettes or forged papers.9

It was also noted that an increasing number of migrant smugglers are from countries outside the Western Balkans region, but that they have regional connections in transit countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. In some cases, these criminal groups are recruiting migrants (including minors) to act as guides, lookouts and liaisons, or for rowing boats or rafts across rivers, for example, between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. As reported in a previous Risk Bulletin, the Brcko region appears to be a weak link here. This self-governing district, which borders Croatia, is alleged to be a hotspot for smuggling of migrants, particularly Turkish citizens, across the Sava River into Croatia.10

Discussions were also held on the grey area between migrant smuggling and human trafficking, particularly how migrants who draw on the services of traffickers may become victims of human trafficking if they get stuck along the route (for example, if they run out of money), or when they arrive at the country of destination and are indebted to a trafficker. In the latter case, they may become victims of forced labour, prostitution, debt bondage or extortion, or be compelled to commit criminal acts.11 The line between smuggling and trafficking is thin, and it presents a complex problem for law enforcement and prosecutors in investigating and building cases, but also for further prosecution and conviction by the judiciary. The situation is complicated by the fact that the jurisdiction for migrant smuggling in Bosnia and Herzegovina is at the state level, while the responsibility for human trafficking lies with the entity or cantonal judicial institutions. This perhaps helps to explain why there are few convictions for human trafficking and smuggling in Bosnia and Herzegovina.12 

Participants discussed the practical and legal challenges of addressing the issue, and the role of civil society in providing support to people on the move while also countering human trafficking and migrant smuggling in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is also the challenge of researching and reporting on the topic. First-hand accounts were given at the meeting by two migrants who are now seeking asylum in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Women from law enforcement who took part in the meeting spoke up about the need to have more women in decision-making roles in law enforcement, and for more women to be engaged in the field, particularly to deal with vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied children.

Among the conclusions of the meeting was the need for a multi-sector response to the problem, and closer cooperation between government, law enforcement and civil society actors, as well as greater cross-border cooperation to cope more effectively with this transnational challenge. On 15 December 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina was formally accepted as a candidate to join the EU. Moving forward, one of the biggest challenges will be to more effectively manage its more than 1 500 kilometers of land borders.


  1. Border Violence Monitoring Network, Reconstructing a violent pushback of asylum seekers from Croatia to Bosnia – BVMN Border Investigations, 19 November 2020,

  2. Walter Kemp, Kristina Amerhauser and Ruggero Scaturro, Spot prices: Analyzing flows of people, drugs and money in the Western Balkans, GI-TOC, May 2021,

  3. Walter Kemp, Kristina Amerhauser and Ruggero Scaturro, Spot prices: Analyzing flows of people, drugs and money in the Western Balkans, Gl-TOC, May 2021,

  4. International Police Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sta je IPA,

  5. Anesa Agović, Supporting law enforcement coordination to counter migrant smuggling and human trafficking in the Western Balkans, 6 December 2022,

  6. D B, ‘Turisti’ iz Rusije sve više dolaze u BiH, uskoro se očekuje još veći broj, Klix, 27 December 2022,

  7. Interview with police inspector, Brcko, 22 December 2022. 

  8. E M, Granica sa Srbijom šuplja kao švicarski sir: Prekidi struje omogućavaju sumnjivcima da uđu u BiH, Klix, 22 January 2023,

  9. Jovana Jovanović, Trgovci ilegalnog oružja našli nove mušterije: Koriste sukobe migranata za bogaćenje, evo i po kojim cenama im prodaju, 24sedam, 2 July 2022,

  10. Interview with police inspector, Brcko, 22 December 2022. 

  11. Sud Bosne i Hercegovine, Krijumčarenje migranata: Praksa Suda Bosne i Hercegovine, period od 2018 do 2021, April 2022,

  12. US Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, State department releases report on trafficking in persons BiH upgraded to Tier 2, 1 July 2022,