Billion-euro Ottoman smuggling route to Europe still an operating business

Francesca Astorri
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It does sound anachronistic, but the routes of smuggling during the Ottoman period still persist today, as European Union’s law enforcement agency, Europol, estimates that smuggling into Europe was a business worth up to 5.7 billion euros in 2015.

According to Louise Shelley, founder and executive director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC), Bulgarian, Hungarian and Turkish criminal groups are often facilitators of illegal activities, moving individuals from east through the Balkans to Western Europe, following trajectories already established in the Ottoman era.


“Turkish drug trafficking organizations, building an historical smuggling routes, worked with criminal groups in the Balkans to move heroin to Europe” Shelley, who is also Professor at George Mason University, said in her speech at NATO Defense College Foundation conference “The Western Balkans at a crossroads” in Rome, Italy.

Illegal border crossing

More than 510,000 illegal border crossings were registered in 2016 in the European Union (EU), with nearly all of the irregular migrants arriving in the EU along these routes using the services offered by criminal networks at some point during their journeys.

In 2013-2014 Europol received reports on 6,000 organized groups involved in human trafficking, suggesting the presence of numerous networks rather than larger consolidated ones.

“There is a diversity of different criminal organizations structures that commit these sorts of crimes, ranging from the highly organized sophisticated networks to those small, but this is something that is not really well understood. The reality is that the organization of criminal groups depends on the type of commodity being trafficked, on the countries and the region through which they arrange the trafficking, on the time because these things develop over time,” Tobias Freeman, Senior Legal Officer and International Research Fellow at the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, said to Al Arabiya.

The number of people participating in this illegal business reaches 50,000 criminals coming from over 100 countries. According to these data, 70 percent of European citizens suspected to be involved in human trafficking are citizens of Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

The Balkan groups play a crucial role as a bridge between the East and the West of the region, and the range of illegal activities goes from weapon trade, to smuggling cigarettes, to supplying drugs.

Crime spillover effect

“The reality is that we talk a lot about the spillover effect between different crime groups, whether is human trafficking, drug trafficking, tobacco trafficking, but we don’t really understand the cross-sector dimensions of these crime forms, except that organized crime and corruption are the most persistent features of these forms of crime,” said Freeman, adding there is a huge gap in research and analysis that needs to be filled in order to be able to better target and identify strategies to fight these crimes.

For this reason, since September 2017 Freeman is leading a project that aims at building a scientific framework for evidence-based policies that could contribute to the European Union and NATO efforts to ensure regional stability and security in South-East Europe.

But the issue of the Ottoman route and of the Balkan organized crime is also related to the level of the personalities involved.

In 2015, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a network of investigative centers, media outlets and journalists, nominated Milo Djukanovic, who served as President and Prime Minister of Montenegro from 1991 to 2016, as “2015 Man of the Year in Organized Crime”.

OCCRP motivated the award stating that “Djukanovic, the last European dictator, has captured our country for his own private interests and turned it into safe haven for criminals”.

As stated by Shelley, authoritarian rule, absence of accountability, long-term conflicts, the close relationship between institutionalized crime groups and governments are all reasons for high rates of corruption. And all these factors are what really kept the Ottoman route flourishing till today.

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