In his annual speech on “The State of the European Union“, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for further enlargement of the European Union in the Balkans. This would see countries including Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia joining the bloc. However, some EU members oppose the idea on the grounds that democratic values remain fragile in these states and the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings continue to pose a threat to security.
Despite the closure of the so-called Balkan route in 2016 resulting in a drastic drop in the numbers of refugees reaching Western Europe, large numbers of asylum seekers still arrive daily via Macedonia and Serbia, according to cultural anthropologist and border policy specialist Sabine Hess. Hess’s analysis of the situation over the summer of 2016 found that since March of that year it has become “more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous” for migrants travelling this route. Refugees making the journey run the risk of being robbed, assaulted or kidnapped by mafia gangs.
Arms and drug trafficking
The Balkans are a main channel for arms trafficking into Western Europe. The deadly effects of this trade were brought to the world’s attention when, in 2015, jihadists equipped with Yugoslav-era assault rifles from Serbia killed more than 130 people on the streets of Paris and in the Bataclan theatre.
In 2016, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (Frontex) reported on the dangers of arms smuggling from the Balkans. The report points out that the purchase of Kalashnikov rifles and shells has become easier, especially as the scale of arms trafficking from the Balkans has increased as a result of the migration crisis.
Speaking to AFP Ivan Zverzhanovski, who leads a United Nations Development Programme project in the Balkans to help combat illegal arms trafficking said “a gun bought for 250 to 500 euros on the Balkan black market could sell for 3,000 to 5,000 euros in a country such as Sweden.” With nearly 25 million people in the Western Balkans in possession of between 3.6 and 6.2 million guns, it easy to how this has become such a lucrative trade.
In addition to weapons smuggling, the region is also a starting point for drug trafficking into Europe. According to Louise Shelley, founder and executive director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) Balkan drug gangs are making use of old Ottoman-era routes to smuggle heroin from Turkey westwards through southeast Europe.
There is little likelihood of any Balkan candidate countries joining the EU before 2025 and nobody would deny that great strides have been made since towards reaching EU standards in terms of security and stability. Nevertheless, Balkan governments cannot afford to ease up on their efforts to combat the scourge of illegal trafficking that continues to blight the region.