The role of smugglers in border areas

A comparison of smuggling services with solidarity support in the Bosnian border area – a guest contribution

“The game has changed,” comments a local café owner on the current situation in the Bosnian-Croatian border area. What has changed?  The Croatian police is still sealing off the EU border with violence, torture and they continue to push People on the Move (PoM) systematically and illegally back to Bosnia. The racist, inhumane EU migration policy, implemented by the Croatian authorities in the form of armed, militarized police forces, is still a bitter reality.

However, what is different from a few months ago are the used migration routes and movement strategies. In addition to a shift in the route via Serbia to Hungary, PoM and Bosnians in the Bosnian-Croatian border area, also report on the changing “Game”[1] strategies in the region.

Once upon a time – the “Game” a few months ago

A few months ago, the “Game” was mainly attempted on foot. Every day, hundreds of people set out on the foot march through Croatia towards Slovenia and Italy with only the bare necessities in their bags. The days-long march through the Croatian forests usually ended in illegal pushbacks to Bosnia. In addition to physical and psychological violence, destroying cell phones, stealing valuables, and burning clothes and other belongings were part of Croatia’s illegal border security practices. Back in Bosnia, those seeking protection had to, again and again, invest significant sums of money to cover basic needs and necessary equipment for another border crossing attempt.

In addition to the human catastrophe, being on flight eats up an incredible amount of the asylum seekers’ financial resources. The longer it takes, the more money must be spent on sleeping bags, SIM cards, power banks, etc. International and local organizations that advocate for freedom of movement for all and show solidarity with PoM support illegalized migrants with essential resources such as clothing and food in the Bosnian border area, but cannot provide 100% financial support. Since the funds are limited, by far not all needs can be met. Particularly expensive items such as cell phones and power banks are in short supply. In addition to the cost, organizations and activists cannot distribute these items without significant risk of repression, as providing items that are specifically used for border crossing can be criminalized as aiding illegal border crossings. Therefore, support work in the Bosnian border area is usually limited to distributions of resources for daily use.

“Taxi” rides to the EU

Now the “Game” has changed. Many of the people who arrive in northern Bosnia are here for only a few days and do not come back. They organize and pay a smuggler, who transports them to the EU. Depending on the budget of the asylum seeker, there are smuggling structures that offer trips to Zagreb or even as far as Italy. In most cases, the PoM are picked up by the drivers shortly after the Croatian border driving them through the country. Vehicles offer a not inconsiderable protection from the police, their dogs, thermal imaging cameras and motion detectors, which are supposed to seal off the border area from illegalized immigration.

According to reports from the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), pushbacks out of Zagreb do happen, but there is less chance of being apprehended in the metropolis and returned to Bosnia. In addition, PoM have increasingly reported that Croatian authorities are now issueing a kind of “7-day visa” for illegalized migrants. When apprehended by the police, they hand out this document. The PoM then have seven days to leave Croatia and the entire European economic area. In this way, they are systematically prevented from applying for asylum in Croatia, but they can continue their journey towards Central Europe – which in most cases is the destination of their journey anyway – without being pushed back to Bosnia. Once in Zagreb, people then try to reach Slovenia, Italy, Austria, or France by public transportation.

Despite motorized travel, the “new game” is also fraught with risks and is far from being a “safe escape route”. Asylum seekers remain in an extremely vulnerable position, exposed to smugglers and potential violence and detention. Safe flight options such as humanitarian visas for EU states do not exist. The EU rejects the introduction of humanitarian visas, as well as a general change of its visa and migration policy. Because there are no safe escape routes, people seeking protection must make their way illegally and are thus exposed to exploitative structures. Smuggling structures can also be extremely brutal, exploitative, and violent. In north-western Bosnia, where the observations for this article were made, seems to be hardly any excesses of violence on the part of smugglers. At other EU external borders, the situation is very different. Activists in the north of Serbia, for example, report extreme psychological and physical violence perpetrated by smugglers against PoM. This text is not intended to trivialize, support, or endorse these structures and behaviours. Rather, it is meant to be a critical self-reflection of support work in terms of its ultimate benefit to refugees.

In addition to the risks for those seeking protection, who, when discovered in cars, are reportedly detained for days without a legal complaint mechanism, and then often pushed out of the EU, the smugglers are also exposed to legal risks. If caught transporting illegalized persons, they face imprisonment for several years.

Smuggling, please!

Because the risk for the drivers is considerable, the smugglers make demand relatively high prices for their services. They profit financially from the plight of those seeking protection, which must certainly be criticised. However, smuggling can also be seen as a “normal” service. It is just an (overpriced) service, in which the supply – a car ride – meets the demand – mobility.  It is not humanitarian aid and does not claim to be ethically and morally exemplary. Smugglers are often illegal migrants themselves, who want to earn some extra money and support their families in the countries of origin. Or they are local, Bosnian people, who also depend on the income from smuggling. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the most economically disadvantaged countries in Europe. The unemployment rate is around 17%, there is no state pension scheme, the public infrastructure is poor, and the democratic system is unstable and plagued by corruption. In most cases, the exploitation of the emergency situation PoM are in, is not the result of greed, but is also resulting from an emergency situation in which the exploiters find themselves. The fact that the smugglers risk imprisonment with their activity shows this.

The prices for a so-called “taxi ride” to the EU are quite high. PoM report that several hundred euros per person must be paid for transportation to Croatia. A trip to Italy reportedly costs four to six thousand euros per person. Certainly not all asylum seekers can afford this, making the “new game” a kind of classist method of transportation. Smuggling structures are used much more frequently than they were a year ago, but still the majority of PoM passing through here must continue trying the “Game” on foot due to lack of financial resources. However, the high costs associated with continued attempts to cross the border on foot and survival in the Bosnian border area put the high price for “taxis” somewhat into perspective. Those who have to survive in the Bosnian border area for several months, spend several hundred euros on food, sleeping bags, cell phones, powerbanks, etc. For this sum, one could probably finance a “taxi ride” to Croatia in many cases and save the months in inhumane conditions in the north of Bosnia.

If one also includes the money that independent, grassroots organizations that want to support the freedom of movement of People on the Move and provide them with resources essential for survival in the Bosnian border area, the price of a “taxi ride” is further put into perspective. On the one hand, the material support provided by the organizations relieves the PoM financially because they do not have to spend their own funds on sleeping bags, food, and clothing. On the other hand, if the organizations’ funds were invested in cab rides and people did not have to stay in the border area, no one – neither support structures, nor PoM themselves – would have to spend money on means of survival in Bosnia.

In addition, if more people were transporting People on the Move for humanitarian reasons and therefore for no or little money (e.g., only fuel costs), there would also be more competition on the smuggling market. According to capitalist market logic, this would lower the general price level for smuggling trips. “Taxi rides” to the EU would become more affordable and less classist. Especially since the PoM are involuntarily holding out in the Bosnian border area, it would make more sense for solidarity structures to make their resources available for “taxi rides”, as this would support the PoM’s wish to move to central/western Europe. This would allow PoM to reach their destination more quickly and often, if all the resources of all parties involved are included in this hypothetical calculation, it could also save money. Due to the criminalization of assisting illegalized border crossings by all EU states and other legal hurdles, this is structurally not possible and would mean the end of the organized structures and the criminal prosecution of the members and activists involved. The decision in favour of material support in the Bosnian border area and against active help to cross the EU border therefore seems logical and strategically correct for the structures. Nonetheless, the smugglers basically provide more effective support and do de facto more for the practical implementation of freedom of movement for all.

While political groups aim to abolish borders and fight for general freedom of movement, the financially motivated smugglers do more to achieve this goal in a subversive way. The fact that a private market provides more effective support than left-wing, mostly capitalism-critical groups should give the latter pause for thought.

[1] The “game“ describes the attempt of crossing the border and claiming asylum. I it used by People on the Move.