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West Balkan nations to cooperate on organized crime and migration

Representatives of Hungary and six Balkan nations on Thursday signed an agreement in Budapest to cooperate in the fight against human and drug trafficking.

Ministers and officials from Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro all put their names to the document during a two-day conference. “For Hungary, because of our European Union role and Schengen membership, it is very important that we work together against cross-border crime and illegal migration,” Hungarian Justice Minister József Petrétei told a press conference. Hungary, Slovenia and new EU-member Romania together form the EU's land border with the Balkans.

The Schengen zone is an area where EU member countries have agreed to remove all internal borders. Hungary is due to completely implement the agreement by March 2008, making it imperative that illegal immigrants are caught before they enter the zone and can move more freely. Criminal gangs are regularly caught attempting to smuggle illegal migrant workers into the EU via Hungary. The workers' final destination is usually Italy, Austria or countries further west where higher wages can be earned.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has noted that the importance of the heroin smuggling route through Hungary via the Balkans had diminished, but that Afghani heroin still made its way to Europe via this route. In recent years Hungarian border guards have intercepted hundreds of kilograms of heroin worth tens of millions of euros, but ministers are keen to step up the fight by gaining help from countries further down the smuggling route. The representatives said police would share experiences and information in order to better improve detection rates.

“Our goals can't be achieved without cooperation,” said Serbian Interior Minister Dragan Jocic. “We want to be a partner that can be trusted in the region.” According to the UNODC, the heroin route through Croatia and Slovenia into Italy and beyond has grown in importance again. Ivica Kirin, interior minister for Croatia, the closest of all the Balkan nations to EU accession, said that by working more closely to stop cross-border crime, nations would not only be defending themselves but the EU too. (