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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.

Los Balcanes: ¿la puerta de entrada de la yihad?

La historia de la crisis migratoria europea está lejos de llegar a su fin. En los Balcanes, la región que sufrió uno de los mayores impactos, la situación puede estar cediendo; pero en la era post-califato, crece el riesgo de extremismo en la región.

Entre 2015 y 2016, fue gigantesca la cantidad de migrantes y refugiados provenientes de Medio Oriente y Asia que transitó la ruta de los Balcanes (765.000 en 2015, y 130.000 en 2016). Esta cifra descomunal sobrealimentó el negocio del tráfico ilícito de migrantes, convirtiéndolo en una de las formas de delito más lucrativas en la región.

La crisis expuso las vulnerabilidades en materia de control de fronteras a lo largo de los Balcanes. No obstante, los esfuerzos encaminados a fortalecerlas fueron socavados por la corrupción – o, como se indicó en una entrevista que realizó la Iniciativa Global en febrero de 2017 para nuestro informe The crooked kaleidoscope: Organized crime and illicit trafficking in the Balkans”, “los delincuentes tienen la llave del candado”.

La situación sigue siendo la misma. Grupos con décadas de experiencia en la trata de personas y otras formas de delincuencia organizada cobran precios exorbitantes a migrantes desesperados que temen quedar atrapados en países como Turquía y Grecia – o en los Balcanes mismos. Los precios para ser trasladados desde Grecia hacia los Balcanes oscilan entre €5000 y €7000 por persona, lo que lo convierte en un mercado criminal potencialmente enorme.

Fueron muchos en Albania y Kosovo los que aprovecharon el caos para unirse a los flujos migratorios mixtos. De acuerdo con cifras alemanas, en 2015, los ciudadanos sirios fueron los que solicitaron asilo con más frecuencia, seguidos por los albaneses y, en tercer lugar, por los kosovares. Sin embargo, decenas de miles de estos ciudadanos balcánicos no ganaron el derecho a asilo y fueron devueltos a sus países de origen, planteando desafíos al momento de reinsertarse, particularmente porque el intercambio de nacionalidad es, desde hace tiempo, una estrategia de asilo en la región.

De cara a este fenómeno, las redes de tráfico ilícito han seguido explotando la situación, reforzando su poder, profesionalismo, y haciéndose más brutales. Una ONG serbia denunció graves abusos a lo largo de las rutas migratorias, entre los que se encuentran casos de tráfico de órganos, de mujeres que son forzadas a la prostitución para pagar su pasaje, y de niños varones abusados para hacer pornografía infantil.

Muchos migrantes también han sido abandonados en la región, incluyendo 7.000 sólo en Serbia. Estos grupos siguen impulsando la demanda de los servicios que prestan las redes de tráfico ilícito, como también lo hacen los retenidos en los campamentos griegos. Estos campamentos están bajo la lupa por ser lugares en donde la gente es vulnerable a radicalizarse como soldados yihadistas extranjeros, y por su potencial como sitios de reclutamiento de grupos delictivos organizados.

Como Frontex y la EUROPOL lo han mencionado, existe un riesgo constante de que se utilicen las rutas migratorias y los traficantes para facilitar el desplazamiento de extremistas en ambas direcciones – en dirección este, hacia Siria, Irak y otros campos de batalla de ISIS y al-Qaeda, y hacia Europa occidental, en donde los extremistas desplazados por las recientes pérdidas de territorio de ISIS regresan a sus países a atacar a sus enemigos.

El riesgo de los Balcanes post-califato

Estas dinámicas post-califato deberían ser tomadas con mucha cautela en el contexto de los Balcanes debido a que la región podría ser vista como una puerta de entrada para los yihadistas que salen e ingresan a Europa y porque se eleva el riesgo de extremismo entre los que retornan.

Se estima que unos mil soldados extranjeros de los Balcanes fueron a combatir a Irak y Siria. Aquellos que volvieron cuando las arcas de ISIS eran todavía robustas, suponen una amenaza menor, pero, como menciona un informe reciente de Soufan Group, el estado en el que regresan de Medio Oriente puede influir, en mayor o en menor medida, en su comportamiento. El informe indica que es menos probable que aquellos que ecombatieron en Siria se vieran a ellos mismos como terroristas locales que aquellos simpatizantes de ISIS que jamás viajaron y que, en general, demuestran un deseo más fuerte de unirse a algo nuevo en vez de destruir algo viejo.

Este parece ser el caso de muchos milicianos oriundos de los Balcanes, que viajaron con una proporción inusualmente alta de mujeres y niños para apoyar la lucha a favor del autoproclamado califato – 36% de los bosnios que viajaron, por ejemplo, eran mujeres.

Cuando la ex-Yugoslavia se disolvió, las élites se enriquecieron mientras que la mayoría de la población estaba desempleada y privada del derecho al voto, con sensación de marginación y desilusión. Este era el perfil del soldado balcánico promedio: entre 20 y 35 años, de zonas rurales remotas, generalmente pobre, desempleado, que se une al ISIS por un “propósito”.

Sin embargo, es diferente para los que retornan a casa en el contexto actual – especialmente si ven el fracaso del califato como una derrota vergonzosa y regresan a sus países de mala gana. En su caso, la reinserción puede ser más difícil. La mayoría probablemente no vuelva a vivir en su territorio algo que se asimile a la intensidad de sus experiencias como miembros del ISIS, hayan estado en la primera línea o no. Si al regreso comienzan nuevamente a sentirse desarraigados, excluidos y con una falta de propósito, entonces es poco probable que se conformen fácilmente con su vida normal. En este sentido, el riesgo de que caigan en comportamientos delictivos es importante: cerca del 40% del contingente de Kosovo tenía antecedentes penales.

También hay evidencias de que existe un entrecruzamiento entre el extremismo islámico y otras formas de ilegalidad en los Balcanes, principalmente en Albania. Aquí se dice que hay grupos delictivos con intereses particularmente en la minería (alrededor de la ciudad de Bulqizë) y, en menor medida, en el narcotráfico (en Kukës) que están vinculados a redes de extremismo islámico.

El debate sobre el extremismo islámico en los Balcanes occidentales está enmarañado en la política de la región. Aquellos que sugieren que hay un crecimiento del extremismo en Albania están quizás influenciados por otros países (léase Serbia) que exageran la situación. En las poblaciones más pobres del norte de Albania, en donde solían existir pocos símbolos religiosos, ahora es generalizada la presencia de mezquitas. 

Claro está que esto no significa que las comunidades religiosas son las impulsoras de las ideologías extremistas, pero el riesgo de ser tomadas como campo de reclutamiento para el extremismo, principalmente en las zonas más pobres del país, sigue siendo alto. Por lo tanto, aunque si bien deberíamos ser cuidadosos de no etiquetar a las personas o a grupos nacionales como extremistas, es verdad que la amenaza de radicalización parece ser real en Albania.

Muchos especialistas en terrorismo advirtieron que conforme el califato pierde poder, sus líderes pueden intentar activar células en Occidente. De no abordarse cuidadosamente la reinserción de combatientes extranjeros, como también la de grupos vulnerables que han sido abandonados luego de la crisis migratoria, los Balcanes pueden tener muchos soldados listos para responder cuando se los necesite.

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Tuesday Reitano

Tuesday Reitano is Deputy Director at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and a senior research advisor at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, where she leads the ENACT programme on behalf of the GI. Tuesday was formerly the director of CT MORSE, an independent policy and monitoring unit for the EU’s programmes in counter-terrorism, and for 12 years was a policy specialist in the UN System, including with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Development Group (UNDG) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In this time, she has amassed a wealth of experience in fragile states and development working both with states, civil society and at the community level to strengthen resilience to transnational threats, promote sustainable development and the rule of law. Tuesday has authored a number of policy orientated and academic reports with leading institutions such as the UN, World Bank and OECD on topics ranging from organized crime’s evolution and impact in Africa, on human smuggling, illicit financial flows, and the nexus between crime, terrorism, security and development. Tuesday is the lead author of a forthcoming OECD flagship publication: Illicit Financial Flows: Criminal Economies in West Africa, co-author of Migrant, Refugee; Smuggler, Saviour, a book published in 2016 by Hurst on the role of smugglers in Europe’s migration crisis, and the editor of Militarised Responses to Organised Crime: War on Crime, published by Palgrave in 2017. She holds three Masters Degrees in Business Administration (MBA), Public Administration (MPA) and an MSc in Security, Conflict and International Development (MSc). Tuesday is based in Geneva, Switzerland, with her family.

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Jessica Gerken

Jessica is a Programe Officer and Analyst working on human smuggling and trafficking in Libya and the Sahel, based in Malta.

She has been working for the Global Initiative since summer 2015 and has been based in Lebanon as well as Switzerland prior her relocation to the Malta office. Her main areas of interest are human smuggling, and conflict and post-conflict contexts; her regional focus is the Middle East.

Jessica holds a MA in International Relations and Political Science from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and a BScEcon in International Politics and Strategic Studies from Aberystwyth University. As a native German, Jessica speaks German, English, possesses a limited working proficiency in French and basic knowledge of Levantine Arabic.

Recent publications:

The Balkans: A migrant gateway for Jihadists?, 2018

Understanding Illicit Trade: Impact of human trafficking and smuggling on the private sector, 2016

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