The everyday Balkan smuggler MF

According to official Serbian government statistics, during the peak of the migrant crisis in the summer of 2015, up to 10,000 people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, were entering Serbia illegally on a daily basis.


Imagine this number of newcomers every day in a Balkan country of some 8 million people who live with the reality of rampant corruption, the lack of democratic and independent institutions, politically subservient media, and high unemployment, where the state remains the biggest employer, and the police don’t enjoy high levels of public trust.


Yet, with modest means and EU financial support, Serbia dealt with the problem unexpectedly well, and was praised by many officials (including Angela Merkel) for its outstanding efforts in crisis management. At least this was the picture shown in the media. Those aware of the situation on the ground knew that it was far from perfect.


It’s common knowledge in Serbia that back in 2015 “everybody was smuggling migrants.” Officials often insisted that the country must not become an EU dumping ground, in effect telling smugglers they could operate with impunity.


As I traveled the region last year with a team of filmmakers and journalists, we met many ordinary people who had nothing to do with criminal networks, but were persuaded to smuggle migrants across the border when they saw the extraordinary possibilities to earn extra income.


The documentary we shot, “The Game,” is now in post-production. In it we tell the story of how tragedy struck an Afghan family caught in the no-man’s land along the Serbian-Croatian border. Now we want to reveal an even less known aspect of migration, the ordinary Serbs and others who became traffickers, often simply to make ends meet.


Some in Serbia and neighboring countries got into the business on their own; others were recruited by anonymous people who promised easy money. The only thing you had to do was drive a car with its passengers to a designated place. The driver was told to ask no questions, just deliver the cargo to Vienna or another Western European destination. Those people were very often caught by Hungarian police and sentenced to prison.


We want to investigate this phenomenon through the stories of the ordinary smugglers. Many have left jail and returned home. We also plan to conduct interviews with those who still remain in Hungarian jails.


Tracing the activities of these men demands in-depth research and reporting. We’re counting on the generosity of Press Start donors to fund the first phase of the project, where we’ll sniff into Hungarian court records to see the numbers and patterns and identify potential interviewees. We’ll document our investigation through regular updates with the final goal of making a second film to complement “The Game.”


The shadowy nature of smuggling makes it hard to assess its impact on the countries along the routes from Turkey to Western Europe, so we also want to find out the scale of the business and the decision making process behind it. Some argue that the critical failure to handle the crisis on the national, regional and European level in 2015-16 led to entire Balkan societies becoming criminalized.   By focusing down to the level of personal narrative, our aim to ask how far this is true and what the consequences are today.


We will use anonymous testimonies of former smugglers to add context, and draw on the expertise of state and civil society actors.


We believe that the place we are now, three years after the migration peak, is a good vantage point from which to assess the long-term consequences of the migration crisis. Court records and personal testimonies can fill the spaces in a mosaic up to now made mostly of anecdotal accounts. We think this approach will enable a more rounded picture of a process we saw at first hand but could not then fully absorb. This can also put a new light on the way we think about migration as a humanitarian and crisis management problem. We also hope this story will enable us to ask new, fresh questions and push the debate about one of the most important phenomena of our times.

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