ZAGREB (Reuters) - Police in Bosnia and Croatia have arrested 38 people accused of smuggling illegal migrants into the European Union in a coordinated crackdown on human trafficking in the region.
The so-called “Balkan smuggling route” is used to ferry contraband drugs and people from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Police in Croatia, which joins the European Union on July 1, arrested 25 people and were looking for eight more suspects, while 13 were arrested in Bosnia, said Dean Savic, head of the Croatian police unit for corruption and organized crime.
“This is a message to the smugglers - rest assured we’ll come knocking on your door,” Savic told a news conference.
In preparation for EU entry, Croatia has almost tripled the number of border police to around 6,000.
They will patrol its 1,400-km land border with non-EU neighbors Serbia and Bosnia, equipped with thermal vision cameras and infrared binoculars that can spot illegal migrants at night.
Savic said the migrants, mostly from Turkey and Kosovo, had paid around 1,000 euros per head to be smuggled across the border.
In the past decade, the number of illegal migrants entering Croatia each year has risen to around 6,000, but a higher number choose to continue to its northern neighbor Hungary, which is already in the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone.
Zoran Niceno, deputy head of Croatia’s border police, told Reuters last month only a small rise in the number of illegal migrants was expected once Croatia joined the EU, because it would remain outside the Schengen area for several more years.
Croatia hopes to join Schengen by 2016, but first needs to upgrade its border control and equipment, for which the EU has already earmarked 120 million euros.
Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic; editing by Mike Collett-White