Natalia Zaba & team

The everyday Balkan smuggler MF

Out soon: A documentary about the “invisible deaths” of Afghani migrants in the Balkans by Polish-born Balkan reporter Natalia Żaba and her colleagues. The team is now planning the follow-up – an investigation into how migrant trafficking became big business in the region. Their goal is a second film focusing on the smugglers themselves. Press Start donors can help them launch the first phase, mining official records for data on traffickers and how authorities on both sides of the EU-Serbian border dealt with them.


raised $3,120 out of $2,741

It’s been three years since a massive human relocation from Asia and Africa to Europe started. Back in 2015, over a million people mostly from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria undertook a risky journey over land and water to Greece and onward via the “Balkan route” to Western Europe.

Although the migration flow ebbed following the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, this human stream has never stopped, even as the media and public attention shifted to the political instability and other processes that the EU is currently facing. Although we know that criminal groups are deeply involved in the business of transporting migrants, few journalists have investigated the presence of organized crime or followed the money trail. Nor are there reliable numbers of migrant deaths once they reach Europe.

I’ve spent the last decade in the Balkan region, covering regional and national politics and social affairs for regional outlets such as Balkan Insight, Al Jazeera Balkans, Al Jazeera English and others. My articles on migration, civil society, minority issues and other topics have been published in the regional and international media in English, Serbian, Albanian, Italian, and Romanian. Long story short – I know this important, yet neglected region inside and out.

My interest in migration into and from the Balkans started in 2014, when thousands of Kosovars took advantage of an agreement enabling Kosovo Albanians to enter Serbia without visas to try their luck at crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border, hoping in most cases to reach Germany in order to apply for asylum.

I realized that this new stream of migrants was reopening an old smuggling route. The thing I didn’t anticipate was that it was soon going to be used by vastly larger numbers of refugees and migrants with the help of local and international criminal networks.

In 2017, I teamed up with a group of wonderful individuals to make a documentary film about the “invisible deaths” of migrants in the Balkans, told through the harsh experience of one Afghan family.

  • Michal Vit (Czech Republic) – project coordinator

Michal obtained his doctorate in 2017 from the joint East and Central Europe in Transnational Perspective program of Masaryk University and the University of Leipzig. Previously he was associated with the Institute for European Policy (IEP), Berlin.

  • Marko Grba Singh (Serbia) – video editing and production

Marko is a filmmaker and a doctoral student in film directing at the University of Arts in Belgrade. He has made several music videos for Serbian rock and pop groups. His short documentaries have been screened at the Visions du réel festival in Nyon, Switzerland, and his mid-length film Abdul & Hamza was in competition at the 2015 edition of FID Marseille, winning a special jury mention in the first film competition. In 2017 his short docu-fiction film Stars of Gaomeigu won an award at Visions du réel, and his short film If I Had It My Way I Would Never Leave was screened at Cannes in the ACID section.

  • Bosko Djordjevic (Serbia) – camera

Bosko has a degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Niš and is currently studying photography at the Belgrade University of Arts. He has participated in group photographic and multimedia shows in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Novigrad, Toronto, and more.

  • Milan Andjeljovic (Serbia) – sound editor

An experienced sound editor,  Milan has worked on many movie productions in Serbia. He is a graduate of the film department of the University of Arts in Belgrade.

  • For our new project, Žarka Radoja will join the team. Žarka is a journalist and editor of the small online regional portal Kontrapress. She has covered migration across the Western Balkans and in the Middle East for three years. She co-organized an exhibition of refugee art in Belgrade and was a contributor to the book Forced Migration and Social Trauma.


The end product of our journeys in the Balkans was a documentary, The Game, about 8-year-old Madina, who with her Afghani mother and siblings tried to cross from Serbia into EU member Croatia only for the family to be sent back to Serbia on foot along a railway line, where Madina met her death. We documented the family’s trauma, the helter-skelter official response, and the situation in Balkan transit zones. The film is enriched with interviews with other asylum seekers as well as high officials of the Hungarian police and Serbian Commissariat for Refugees.

The film is due for release soon. Watch this space for updates.

Making the first film convinced us that there is much more to be discovered about migration, one of the biggest challenges of our times.

Reporting on migration is a demanding job and rarely a rewarding one, no matter where you are. One needs to face not only human misery on a scale rarely seen in these times, but also the sheer hopelessness of the situation and the reluctance of media managers to keep on covering this difficult topic.

Investigative reporters and filmmakers need more time than traditional media to be able to dig deeper into what a daily reporter might be noticing, but doesn’t have time to chase. We also believe that every story is a human story after all. We’d like to tell you one that will bring us together or at least will open a discussion on one of the biggest topics of our times.

Click here to see Natalia Zaba & team's reporting proposal.