PUNJABI - BELGRADE - India and Serbia have enjoyed visa-on-arrival policy between 2017 and 2023. Investigation revealed a nexus between Indian travel agents who would connect these migrants with donkers (human smugglers) in Serbia, who further helped them cross international borders via countries like Hungary, Romania, North Macedonia, Greece, Spain, and Italy. 

This illicit process, popularly code named donkey, is a wide network of human smugglers from countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and various parts of Europe, who work in liaison with each other at various border points to facilitate illegal transit in exchange for huge sums of money. 

During the first investigation for JournalismFund Europe on the topic: ‘Kabootar Baazi of Punjabi women to Europe,’ the team came across a tip-off that traffickers had been sending Punjabis to Europe via Serbia. Between 2017 and 2023, many Punjabis from India made use of this loophole to make their crossover into Europe.

When Serbia suspended its visa rules on January 1st 2023, to prevent Indians from using it as a transit country, it only fueled the human smuggling trade. The investigation found that smugglers were adding new destinations like Nepal, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to the travel itineraries of Punjabis to make them appear more “believable” to the Serbian immigration officials. During the investigation, the team managed to stay connected with many migrants who were documenting their journeys through smartphones while sharing vivid details of being smuggled across international borders. Along with being in contact with the sources for more than a year, the team was checking the situation from the Serbian angle, where they transit "in shadow".

Image credit: BIRN/Igor Vujcic

Team members

Pari Saikia

Pari Saikia is an independent human rights journalist from New Delhi, India.

Pari Saikia

Sona Singh

Dr. Sona Singh is an independent journalist and researcher based in New Delhi, India.

Sona Singh

Ana Curic

Ana Curic is an investigative and data journalist from Belgrade, Serbia, with more than five years of experience.

Ana Curic

Lindita Çela

Lindita Çela is an investigative reporter based in Albania.

Lindita Çela
€14.000 allocated on 11/04/2022


need resources for your own investigative story?

Journalismfund Europe's flexible grants programmes enable journalists to produce relevant public interest stories with a European mind-set from international, national, and regional perspectives.


support independent cross-border investigative journalism

We rely on your support to continue the work that we do. Make a gift of any amount today.