Unaccompanied minors are facing perilous journeys on the Western Balkan migration route to the EU.

In February 2023, Slovenian police – in cooperation with law enforcement authorities from Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy and Romania – arrested 13 suspected human smugglers. Hailing from Slovenia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the arrested were suspected of being responsible for smuggling over 200 migrants into the EU. Along with weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition, the police found illicit drugs and cash.1

The criminals advertised their illicit activities – including videos documenting successful transports – on various social media platforms to lure migrants into being smuggled across the borders. They moved migrants along two main routes, either from Croatia through Slovenia to Italy, or from Serbia and Hungary to Austria. Migrants using the smuggling services paid steep prices to cross into the EU: an illegal trip from Serbia to Austria cost around €5 000 per person and the entire journey from the country of origin to the EU generally cost between €15 000 and €20 000.2

Weapons seized in a Europol operation that culminated in the arrest of 13 suspected human smugglers, February 2023.

Weapons seized in a Europol operation that culminated in the arrest of 13 suspected human smugglers, February 2023.

Source: Europol

Migration on the Balkan route has been on the rise since 2019,3 with the number of illegal crossings increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic.4 In 2022, more than 330 000 irregular entries were detected at the external borders of the EU, which is the highest number since 2016. Illegal entries through the Balkan route also peaked, with the highest number recorded since 2015.5

According to a border police officer in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country is a ‘more favourable money’ route for smugglers.6 Migrants from Africa and Asia are increasingly illegally entering Bosnia and Herzegovina from Montenegro and Serbia. From there, they try to cross the border into Croatia.7 According to Frontex, Syrians and Turks were the most prevalent nationalities detected, and nationals of countries such as Tunisia, Burundi and India, which were previously scarce, were registered on the Balkan route in 2022.

The profile of people on the move is also changing. A growing number of children have been trying to enter the EU, particularly young boys from Afghanistan, since the Taliban took power in August 2021. Afghans now make up around 49% of the inhabitants of refugee camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina.8

Along with more people on the move, there is an increasing risk of exploitation by smuggling networks. An employee of an international organization supporting migrants said that ‘people on the move are often unprotected’. Although organizations can report on the exploitation of migrants, such reports often lead nowhere: ‘There is no will to further investigate such reports, by international organizations or local authorities,’ said the employee.9

Migrant children with their families are often victims of violence, discrimination and human rights violations. Unaccompanied children10 are even more exposed to exploitation and violence. They usually travel with extended relatives but also join strangers along the route to avoid lengthy stays in refugee camps. While this approach is taken to increase their safety, it also exposes them to new risks.

Migrant children at risk

In most cases, unaccompanied children become victims of sexual exploitation at the start of their journey – a pattern that continues along the migration route, which usually takes over a year. According to a researcher investigating sexual exploitation in the Western Balkans, more than 99% of unaccompanied children who left their countries are victims of trafficking.11

A 2022 report by the NGO Save The Children also found that migrant children transiting via the Western Balkans to the EU were at high risk of suffering violence.12 The children interviewed for the report mostly talked of unaccompanied boys being victims of sexual abuse that happened on the road. None of the children surveyed said that they had been a victim of sexual abuse, but almost two-thirds reported one or more incidents in which they recognized signs of or witnessed such abuse.13

Sexual exploitation of children is often unspoken about, even to close relatives. Children may be reluctant to talk about it out of fear or shame, and to protect their privacy and psychological well-being, interviewers did not insist on answers or probe further. The children interviewed on the Balkan route often denied its occurrence or sometimes normalized it as an expected abuse of power. This context makes this type of violence particularly difficult to identify.14

Another difficulty when investigating such criminal activities is that children are rarely aware of their rights and depend on their group’s elders, who are often the perpetrators.15 An additional problem is that these children are not registered and do not stay in the same place or even in the same country for long. Some fear that if they report incidents to the police, they will be returned to their country of origin. It is thus difficult to get accurate information and data, even when contacting international or domestic organizations working in the camps.

According to Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ‘In all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’.16 Along the Balkan route, this provision is not applied. There are, however, rare cases in which the sexual exploitation of unaccompanied children has been detected, and law enforcement and prosecutors have taken action to protect the victims.

In February 2022, cases of sexual exploitation were exposed in Orasje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where some of the victims were minors.17 Both the suspected perpetrators and victims belonged to the migrant population residing in the reception centres in the country, and were from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Prosecutor’s Office and partner institutions are currently working to secure the evidence needed to prosecute the perpetrators, and to care for and protect the victims.

Such a response is unusual. For the most part, children are invisible victims: even when cases of sexual exploitation are identified, little is done. According to a civil society representative working with migrants in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a smuggler based in the migrant reception centre was conducting his illegal activities in plain sight. When he smuggled people along the Balkan route, he was always surrounded by younger boys who called him ‘father’ or ‘uncle’. Identifying him as a family member eased his access to boys and avoided their separation in camps, and allowed him to exploit them sexually.18 In other cases, when smuggling people across the Drina River from Serbia to Bosnia and Herzegovina, boys are put in charge of steering the boats. Minors, primarily unaccompanied children, drive the boats because if caught, they are not held responsible under the law. Instead, they are released or placed in a refugee centre.19

According to civil society representatives working with migrants, the issue of investigating sexual exploitation of unaccompanied children suffers due to a lack of interest by law enforcement, as well as a shortage of field research: ‘Even though some organizations and individuals have obtained data on the existence of sexual exploitation among unaccompanied children, this was not enough to persuade the authorities to initiate investigations,’ said one activist. 20

One of the ways to reduce the risk of sexual exploitation of children travelling to the EU via the Western Balkans is to build trust among children towards those supporting migrants in camps. This means improving communication and cooperation between institutions, organizations and individuals that are part of the protection network, and increasing the protection system’s communication with refugees and migrants. This includes raising awareness about the risks and dangers of sexual exploitation of children. To respect the best interests of children on the move, law enforcement, the social welfare system, international organizations and civil society should work together to protect and address the needs of unaccompanied minors.


  1. EUROPOL, 13 criminals arrested for smuggling at least 212 people, 16 February 2023, https://www.europol.europa.eu/media-press/newsroom/news/13-criminals-arrested-for-smuggling-least-212-people

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Frontex, Migratory routes, Western Balkan route, https://frontex.europa.eu/what-we-do/migratory-routes/western-balkan-route/

  4. MARRI, Analysing the influence of COVID-19 on migration in the MARRI participants, 25 January 2021, http://marri-rc.org.mk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/FINAL-REPORT_Analysing-the-influence-of-COVID-19-on-migration-in-the-MARRI-Praticipants-1.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0KLKkK275b50Q71vMq0XxZ9e781PfndV5sYoPf5iePilGoqWFuMEPpjLU

  5. Frontex, EU’s external borders in 2022: Number of irregular border crossings highest since 2016, 13 January 2023, https://frontex.europa.eu/media-centre/news/news-release/eu-s-external-borders-in-2022-number-of-irregular-border-crossings-highest-since-2016-YsAZ29

  6. Interview with a border police officer in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo, 30 November 2022. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Povećan broj migranata u BiH izvan privremenih prihvatnih centara, Fokus, 3 November 2022, https://www.fokus.ba/vijesti/bih/povecan-broj-migranata-u-bih-izvan-privremenih-prihvatnih-centara/2430706/

  9. Interview with a civil society activist and employee of an international organization in Una-Sana Canton, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 21 January 2023. 

  10. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines an unaccompanied child as ‘a person who is under the age of eighteen years, unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier and who is “separated from both parents and is not being cared for by an adult who by law or custom has responsibility to do so”’. See UNHCR, Guidelines on policies and procedures in dealing with unaccompanied children seeking asylum, February 1997, https://www.unhcr.org/media/guidelines-policies-and-procedures-dealing-unaccompanied-children-seeking-asylum

  11. Report launch event, ‘Wherever we go, someone does us harm: Violence against refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe through the Balkans, Save the Children, Sarajevo, 29 November 2022. 

  12. Save the Children, Wherever we go, someone does us harm: Violence against refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe through the Balkans, August 2022, https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/document/wherever-we-go-someone-does-us-harm-violence-against-refugee-and-migrant-children-arriving-in-europe-through-the-balkans

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Interview with a psychologist in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 21 December 2022. 

  15. Interview with a civil society activist working with people on the move, Sarajevo, 10 December 2022. 

  16. United Nations, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/convention-rights-child

  17. A Deković, BIH: Pronađeni dokazi o zlostavljanju i seksualnoj eksploataciji migranata, Anadolu Agency, 24 Feberuary 2022, https://www.aa.com.tr/ba/balkan/bih-pronađeni-dokazi-o-zlostavljanju-i-seksualnoj-eksploataciji-migranata/2512450

  18. Interview with a civil society representative working with migrants in Tuzla, 15 January 2023. 

  19. Interview with a police inspector in Sarajevo, 1 February 2023. 

  20. Interview with a civil society activist working with people on the move, Sarajevo, 10 December 2022.