The story of Europe’s migrant crisis is still far from over. In the Balkans, a region that felt some of the greatest shocks, the situation may be easing, but in the post-caliphate era the potential for the risk of extremism there is growing.

Between 2015 and 2016, migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Asia transited the Balkans in enormous numbers (there were 765 000 in 2015, and 130 000 in 2016). The huge numbers of migrants supercharged the migrant-smuggling business, making it one of the region’s most lucrative forms of crime.

The crisis exposed border control vulnerabilities across the Balkans, although efforts to strengthen borders were undermined by corruption, or, as an interview the Global Initiative conducted in February 2017 for our report The crooked kaleidoscope: Organized crime and illicit trafficking in the Balkans suggested, ‘the criminals have keys to the locks’.

And this situation still prevails. Groups with decades of experience in human trafficking and other forms of organized crime charge inflated prices to desperate migrants who fear being trapped in countries like Turkey and Greece – or in the Balkans themselves. Prices for passage from Greece to the Balkans average between €5 000 and €7 000 per person, making it a potentially huge criminal market.

A large number of people from Albania and Kosovo took advantage of the chaos to move with the mixed migration flows. According to German immigration figures, in 2015, Syrians were the nationality most frequently claiming asylum; they were followed second by Albanians and third by Kosovars. Tens of thousands of these Balkan nationals failed in their asylum appli­cations, however, and have now been returned to their countries of origin, posing reintegration challenges, particularly because nationality swapping has been a long-standing asylum strategy in the region.

In the face of this phenomenon, smuggling networks have continued to exploit the situation, becoming more profitable, professional and brutal. A Serbian NGO has reported serious abuses along the migrant routes, including cases of organ trafficking, women being forced into prostitution to pay for their passage, and boys abused for child pornography.

A large number of migrants have also been stranded in the region, including 7 000 in Serbia alone, for example. These groups continue to drive a demand for the services of smuggling rings, as do those held in the Greek camps. These camps have caught attention as places where people are vulnerable to radicalization as foreign jihadist fighters, and as recruitment grounds for organized-crime groups.

As Frontex and EUROPOL have noted, there is a constant risk that migrant routes and smugglers might be used to facilitate the movement of extremists in both directions – east, to Syria, Iraq and other ISIS and al-Qaeda battlefields, and back to western Europe, where extremists displaced by the recent ISIS territorial losses return to potentially strike targets in their home countries.

Beyond the caliphate: The Balkan risk

These post-caliphate dynamics should be carefully considered in the Balkan context, both because the region could be seen as a gateway for jihadists leaving and entering Europe, and, secondly, because of a heightened risk of rising extremism among returnees.

An estimated one thousand foreign fighters went from the Balkans to fight in Iraq and Syria. Those who returned while the fortunes of ISIS were still strong posed limited threat, but, as a recent Soufan Group report notes, at what stage they return from the Middle East may prove critically important to their behaviour. The report suggests that those who went to Syria were less likely to see themselves as domestic terrorists than those ISIS sympathizers who never travelled, generally demonstrating a stronger desire to join something new rather than destroy something old.

This seems particularly true of many of the Balkan foreign fighters, who travelled with an unusually high proportion of women and children to support the fight for the caliphate. For example, 36% of Bosnians who travelled were women.

When the former Yugoslavia broke down, elites enriched themselves, while the majority were unemployed and disenfranchised, and harboured sentiments of marginalization and disillusionment. This was the profile of the average Balkan foreign fighter:  between 20 and 35 years old, from remote rural areas, usually poor, unemployed, and joining ISIS for a ‘purpose’.

But, it is different for those returning home in the current environment – especially if they see the failure of the caliphate as an ignominious defeat and they return reluctantly to their homeland. In their case, reintegration may prove harder. Most are unlikely to experience anything in their lives at home that matches the intensity of their experience as a member of ISIS, whether or not they were fighting on the front line. If, on return, they begin again to feel as rootless, excluded and lacking in purpose as they had before they left, then they are unlikely to settle back easily into a normal life. The risk that they fall into criminal behaviour is considerable: about 40% of the Kosovo contingent of these foreign fighters had prior criminal records.

There is also evidence of a crossover between Islamic extremism and other forms of illegal activities in the Balkans, most notably in Albania. Here, criminal groups with interests particularly in mining (around the town of Bulqizë) and, to a lesser extent, drug trafficking (in Kukës) are said to have links with Islamic extremist networks.

The debate on Islamic extremism in the wider western Balkans is mired in the politics of the region. A mention of the growth of extremism in Albania can be met with the response that it is other countries (read Serbia) that wish to overstate the issue. In the poorest villages of northern Albania, where there used to be few religious symbols in the past, mosques are now a ubiquitous presence.

Of course, that does not mean religious communities are drivers of extremist ideologies, but the potential recruiting grounds for extremism, mainly in the country’s poorest areas, do remain a risk. Therefore, while we should be careful not to label people or national groups as extremists, the threat of radicalization does appear to be real in Albania.

Many terrorism analysts have warned that as the caliphate shrinks, its leaders may attempt to activate supporters in the West. If the reintegration of foreign fighters, as well as the vulnerable groups stranded after the migrant crisis, is not carefully engaged with, the Balkans may have large numbers ready to answer their call.