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Human Trafficking Center

Smuggling Teens into the EU an Easy Path to Exploitation


May 2017



By Bernd Franke and Marin Kovačić, Guest Bloggers*

Where does the line between human smuggling and human trafficking fall?  Although often conflated, the two acts are distinct, with separate aims and motives.  However, an initial act of smuggling can easily transform into an exploitative human trafficking scenario.  This is often the case for teenagers from Kosovo, whose attempts to find more economic opportunity leave them highly vulnerable to deceptive traffickers once in countries such as Italy.

Drivers in Kosovo

More than eight years after proclaiming independence from Serbia, Kosovo is still one of the poorest countries in Europe. According to the World Bank, Kosovo’s per capita income is about one-tenth that of EU average levels, and the incidence of poverty also remains high: using a standardized poverty line, defined as a threshold of US$5 per person per day, the poverty rate in the country sits at about 80%. The unemployment rate is also markedly high, exceeding 55% among 15- to 24-year-olds.

On 11 November 2016, the Kosovo police reported that eight members of an alleged gang accused of smuggling 35 ethnic Albanian minors out of the country, mostly to Italy, were arrested. This was not a one-off occurrence and several similar cases had been reported recently. It is not surprising that many young people are desperate to leave the country and seek better opportunities in the European Union. However, there is almost no chance for them to get the required “Schengen Visa”, since there is no visa liberalization in Kosovo. Therefore, many families place their hopes in illegal methods and pay €3,000 to €3,500 to professional smugglers to enable an illegal entrance for their children to an EU country.

In a country where the average income is around €240 per month, this leads to these families being forced to take out loans, which they pay back gradually in subsequent years. They do this to give their children the chance of a better future. However, the journey is risky, and the process leads to a lot of fear and uncertainty for the family and the individual concerned. Using professional smugglers is almost the only method available for such people to enter the EU, and it is therefore logical that the smuggling of underaged migrants is a prosperous business, perhaps the main pillar of business for organized crime in Kosovo.

Arrival in Italy

Almost every day, several teenage males, mostly between the age of fifteen and seventeen, from Kosovo and similar countries arrive in the larger Italian cities such as Rome, Milan, Florence, and Bologna. Officials label them as “unaccompanied minors”, but in truth, many are child migrants who have been smuggled to Italy. There is a complete network of smugglers who traffic teenagers to Italy, and as the business is very profitable, the number of unaccompanied minors continues to rise.

It is not a coincidence that many of these teenagers arrive shortly before they turn 18, as in these cases, the government grants them temporary under-age residence permits. Before turning 18, a minor can apply to the juvenile prosecutor to either extend their community stay by 3 years or to convert the residence permit for minors into a work, study or health permit by meeting specific requirements. The child can meet such legal requirements by residing in Italy for at least three years, and by participating in an integration project for at least two years.

New Routes for Smugglers

In recent years, smugglers used routes through Serbia, Hungary, and Austria in order to reach their preferred destinations of Austria, Germany, or Italy. Upon arrival, the teenagers told the authorities that they were first brought from Kosovo to Belgrade, then to a town called Subotica, which is near the border of Serbia and Hungary. From Subotica, they crossed the border on foot and after that they were put in another car, which drove, via Austria and Slovenia, to Italy.

However, the smugglers are now forced to use other routes, as recently, Hungary and Croatia installed a fence to close their borders with Serbia to defend against the flood of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This makes it more difficult for unauthorized border crossings from Serbia to succeed. In addition, the government in Budapest has ordered strict border controls and does not baulk at activating the armed forces to defend its border. Thus, the traffickers have switched to alternative, “safer” routes via Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia, traveling by car and using old smuggling routes along the green borders under cover of darkness, or, exceptionally, by utilising small boats crossing the Strait of Otranto, which connects the Adriatic Sea with the Ionian Sea and separates Italy from Albania.

The Teenagers End Up being Trafficked

Although the teenagers are finally granted their desired residence permit in Italy, in many cases this is no cause for joy. On the contrary, the European Union recently stated that there is strong evidence that the migration crisis has been exploited by criminal networks to specifically target minors.

Traffickers have increasingly been found to abuse the asylum seekers they putatively help. Alone in a country where the culture is foreign, a vast number of trafficked minors fall into the hands of organized criminals, who see them as easy prey. Attracted by the chance of a regular income they quickly become financially dependent on their traffickers, after which they are easily manipulated, and have little chance of escape. Although a few end up finding a better life after entering Italy, many slide into contemporary forms of slavery: begging, forced labour, and sexual exploitation. As compensation, they receive only a very small amount of money, which they generally share with their families at home. The parents frequently retain the illusion that their children have started a better life in the European Union. However, the minors lose their human dignity, and become scared of turning to anyone, even those they previously trusted. They become little more than imported slaves and willing subjects of organized crime, which meanwhile enjoys prosperous business.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The phenomenon of the rising number of smuggled and trafficked unaccompanied minors can only be efficiently challenged by a multidimensional cross-border approach. An education campaign which informs and warns minors in Kosovo about the risks of smuggling and trafficking is necessary, as is enforced border control with a specific focus on old smuggling routes. However, the descent of minors into the hands of criminal groups is also a strong indication of failed integration. In Italy, integration is supposed to take place in the communities the minors are assigned to upon their arrival.

Social workers and tutors must be considered to be the key figures for protecting these unaccompanied minors, as they are able to not only monitor the integration process but also take an active role in influencing and controlling these young people. The number of qualified social workers and tutors is currently insufficient to meet the demands and must be increased. Further volunteers should be recruited using clear selection criteria that are consistent and standardized. Along with these measures, a set of guidelines on unaccompanied minors should be included as part of a structured national strategy to support standardization and increased quality of services to provide effective protection for this most vulnerable group of migrants.


*Dr. Bernd Franke is a German European Union diplomat with the EU Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) and is employed as Special Assistant to the Head of Executive Division in Kosovo. Prior to his employment he was a visiting fellow at FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University.

Marin Kovačić is a student at Dag Hammarskjöld University College of International Relations and Diplomacy in Zagreb/Croatia.


Photo via Pixabay


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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