19 smugglers arrested in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia

 08 MAR 2024

A large-scale investigation under Europol’s Operational Task Force (OTF), involving law enforcement and judicial authorities from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia with the informational support from Germany, has led to the dismantling of migrant smuggling networks active across the so-called Balkan route. The more than a year-long investigation into this criminal network led to two action days on 24 January and 6 February.

Overall results of the two action days:

  • The leader of the network (High Value Target), a woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina, was arrested in Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • 18 significant criminal organisation members arrested (9 in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 9 in Croatia)
  • 10 locations searched (in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia)
  • Seizures include vehicles, electronic equipment and about EUR 65 000 in cash

Shift in migration routes in the Western Balkans region

Back in 2023, the Bosnia and Herzegovina-Croatia border was the second most used crossing point for smugglers in Balkans. In 2024 criminals have further intensified their activities on the route Bosnia and Herzegovina – Croatia - Slovenia. Consequentially, this border section is now on the route, which is mostly used to smuggle migrants from the Balkans to Western Europe.

The criminal network targeted by these action days used a very dangerous modus operandi. They transported the migrants between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, hiding them in concealed sections in modified wagon cars. The migrants were placed in hide out under car floors, which made the transportation extremely dangerous. During the investigation and before the action days, Croatian authorities arrested 28 suspected smugglers. Authorities have detected smuggling incidents connected to this network. During these interceptions, more than 360 migrants were found.

The migrants were then led to cross the EU borders mainly on foot. After the migrants had crossed the border, the smugglers would then transport them further by car, van or in the back of a lorry. The investigation led to the identification of several networks operating in the region. The leaders of these networks are believed to reside in surrounding countries, but also in Germany and Türkiye.

The leaders are suspected of coordinating different cells operating at local level to ensure temporary accommodation and then transferring migrants along the route to their final Western European destination. Operational intelligence suggests that approximately 40 networks are active in the region, which are attracting different individuals potentially playing various roles in the smuggling activities.

Regional OTF at Europol to address the criminal networks

The Balkan region is a key transit area for secondary movements, where criminal networks proactively offer their services to irregular migrants. To provide a concerted response to this criminal phenomenon, in March 2023 Europol has set up a regional OTF involving Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Germany and Slovenia. The OTF focuses on tackling criminal networks involved in migrant smuggling along the main Western Balkan migration routes.

Europol established a dedicated financial instrument to facilitate such high-profile investigations. Europol supported the overall coordination of the investigative activities, while also organising operational meetings of the members of the OTF. During the length of the investigations, Europol facilitated the exchange of information and provided analytical support to the national authorities involved. During the action days, Europol deployed experts to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia to assist the national authorities to cross-check in real time operational information against Europol’s databases, perform digital forensics and support the investigators in the field with new leads.