Articles on Modern Day Enslavement - Zola M Dube

In Serbia and Balkans anti-human trafficking may not impact vibrant heroin trade

In 13 Days of Awareness: 13 Nations Profiled, Serbia on July 5, 2010 at 3:52 AM

The main routes towards economically and socially well-off countries of Western Europe are the following: firstly, via Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and partially Slovenia to Italy or Austria; secondly, from Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro to Albania, and across the Adriatic Sea into Italy; thirdly, from Romania, Bulgaria and Albania (through FYR Macedonia) to Greece…. In some cases corrupt local officials protect traffickers and thus ensure an unimpeded flow of women and children trafficked within the country.

Dejan Anastasijevic

The extent of the culture of corruption in the Balkans, the geopolitical and cultural region of southeastern Europe, presents an excellent example of the conditions under which human trafficking thrives, not just in Serbia and Kosovo, but, around the world. Understanding the conditions involves a deep look into networks and channels, both man-made and geographical, through which illicit transport of “commodities” such as drugs, arms and humans permeate.

Man-made networks describe loyal and empowered organized criminal groups. The networks are characterized by cooperation between former warlords, politicians, and national security sectors, linked to Albanian criminal syndicates. Geographical channels are the combination of water routes and porous roads through which traffickers ease through national boarders. Considering the criminal success rate, there appears to be a seamless overlap between networks and channels.

Serbia is a landlocked nation. It borders Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovia, Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. Its capital city is Belgrade.  2000 km of transportable rivers and canals ease navigation to outside regions. The largest waterways connect Serbia with Northern, Western, Eastern and Southern Europe. Kosovo, considered the “cradle of Serbian culture”, is Serbia’s Southern province and the home of an ethnic Albanian majority. In 2008 Kosovo declared independence. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty and sees it as a breakaway province.

Surges in Albanian migration to Western Europe can be traced to various wars in history, markedly World Wars I & II and more recently, the Yugoslav wars. After the fall of communism in 1991 an economic crisis and environment of instability ensued throughout the Balkans. The Kosovo war has also done considerable damage, including war crimes that remain unresolved. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, rapid changes in social and economic norms, poor law enforcement, and policy uncertainty have resulting in the increase in organized crime. The region is also plagued by poverty, high unemployment and inadequate social services. Under these conditions, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and human trafficking have flourished.

The Albania Diaspora has a presence throughout the world and notably within Western Europe. In 2005 it was estimated that between 1989 and 2001 720,000 Albanians emigrated to Italy and Greece. Within Albanian Diaspora is the dispersion of criminal syndicates. Beyond southern Europe, the Albanian mafia has an established presence in Germany, Netherlands, England and Switzerland.

Although Kosovo is supported by NATO, corruption, money laundering, and arms deals have run deep. To the Republican Party’s chagrin in the late 1990s, the Kosovo Liberation Army was accused of providing arms to radical Islamic extremists in the Middle East. In recent years, fear of an arms conflict within the region has subsided. The Balkans cache of arms left behind by decades of war, have reached as far as the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Drug and human trafficking remain a major concern for Western Europe, exceptionally among human rights organization and NGOs. The Balkans role in the global Afghan heroine trade is of particular concern to many groups in that it informs social and political instability, an ever younger addicted youth population and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The monopoly of the world’s heroin is found in Afghanistan, a whopping 85%. The shortest, easiest and preferred route for moving Afghanistan heroin to Western Europe is currently via a southern branch of the Balkan route. On 25 June 2010 Mark Leon Goldberg provided the following statistics on the appreciation of opiates on route to Western Europe:

1 kg of heroin in Afghanistan can fetch $2,000-$2,500. But once that heroin reaches the Af/Pak border, the price increases to $3,000. At the Iran-Afghan border 1 kg of heroin will fetch you $5,000… Iran to Turkey is the first major transit route for Europe-bound heroin. At the border, the price per kg jumps by 60%, to $8,000 a kg… the combined GDP of Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania is about $20 billion – that is equivalent to the value of the entire western European heroin market.

In 2004 the World Customs Organization reported that the “Southern Balkan Route” was used frequently to smuggle opiates into Western Europe. The organization also reported the nationalities of heroin traffickers arrested in Italy from 2000 to 2008: Albanian 32%, Turkish 13%, Other Balkan nationalities 13%, Other 12%, Italian 10%, Pakistani 8%, Nigerian 6%, Other African nationalities 6%.

The geographical smuggling channels of the Balkans consist of water routes and unregulated border crossings. Outside water routes, porous border crossings are passed easily through mountain roads. Many borders along the Balkans route cut across long-standing, close-knit ethic clans. Partnering with the ethnic Albanian Diaspora and multinational crime groups in Europe, criminal Albanian rings dominant European drugs trafficking and distribution.

Dejan Anastasijevic (1) offers the following insight into the network layout:

Qamil Shabani, an ethnic Albanian from Urosevac… was a close associate of Metush Bajrami, an ethnic Albanian from Macedonia with a Bulgarian citizenship, who supervised heroin transports via Turkey, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. But Shabani was also linked with the Serbian crime ring known as the Zemun gang, which was well-connected with BIA, Serbian largest security agency… thanks to their connections with BIA, their vehicles were often escorted by Serbian security officers, ensuring the trucks could pass through police checkpoints without being searched.

Trafficking in human beings has simply been added to the list of “commodities” moved along drug smuggling channels and its networks. In 2010 it has been reported that human trafficking has not subsided, despite 16 May 2005 adoption of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, intended to raise the rule of law on human trafficking to international standards. Recent reports indicate that Serbia and Kosovo are still not achieving measures to stem modern day slavery.

The financial revenues emanating from opiates have been partially addressed in this article. That, combined with a historical exploration into the culture of corruption and collaboration between former warlords of the Yugoslav wars, past and present government officials, Balkan criminal syndicates and their multinational criminal partners (not adequately explored in this article) are key to understanding the difficulties in stemming drug trafficking.  Perhaps, the financial benefits of the heroine trade supersede peace and security in the Balkans. It may be that in NATO’s quest to support Kosovo as a nation worthy of its efforts, a cost/benefits analysis leaves room for tougher regulation and enforced prosecution against human trafficking.

– Zola Dube

(1). Anastasijevic, Dejan. (2006) Organized Crime in the Western Balkans. First Annual Conference on Human Security, Terrorism and Organized Crime in the Western Balkan Region. HUMSEC project in Ljubljana, 23-25 November 2006.

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