There are wolves, bears and unexploded mines in the snow-covered elm and pine forests that divide Bosnia-Herzegovina from the outside world. Yet the borders of the young state that has become a springboard for illegal immigration to Britain are so porous that thousands of people are smuggled through its 432 mostly unmanned crossing points every month.
The situation is so serious that Tony Blair has persuaded the Bosnian government to allow a team of British immigration officials to try to plug the gaps being exploited by international organised crime.
Last week, in a mountain gorge that separates Bosnia from Montenegro, Steve Parke, a British immigration officer, and Ian Johnston, a Merseyside police officer, were checking lorries, cars and buses for signs of people headed illegally for the European Union and Britain. Mr Johnston, who works for the United Nations as deputy chief of the Bosnian border service, said: "The border is crossable anywhere. All 1,600 kms [1,000 miles] is passable, depending on how desperate you are to cross into the next country."
Mafia gangs in Istanbul and Kosovo are exploiting the post-war destabilisation in the former Yugoslavia, with its weak laws, liberal visa regimes and widespread corruption, to ferry Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, Albanian and Afghan migrants into Europe for £5,000 a head.
A report from the International Organisation for Migration says 120,000 women and child sex workers are trafficked into the European Union each year. In Bosnia, 34,000 foreign visitors have disappeared after flying into Sarajevo airport during the past two years. Most have remained for just a few hours before being taken to the border by people smugglers.
In his third-floor office in the blue and white United Nations building overlooking Sarajevo airport, Graham Leese, the project head of the British-led immigration team, is under no illusions about the scale of the problem. "For the EU as a whole – and the UK in particular – the Balkan route has long been identified as the most productive route in terms of illegal migration flows. It's quite easy to bribe border guards to turn a blind eye when you are smuggling across a lorry load of illegal immigrants."
Bosnian organised crime is turning over an estimated £170m a year and, according to one member of the British team, government corruption is a major problem. "There are big fish here. They have massive influence and a lot of them are holding senior positions," he said. The view is shared by Ian Cliff, the British ambassador in Sarajevo, who said there was "massive" corruption among government officials administering the districts and cantons established in Bosnia after the Dayton Accord in 1995.
"It is basically a country that has not built a proper economy since the end of the war," he said. "People look to office as a way of supporting themselves, their families and their extended families."
He said officials were subjected to bribery and threats. "Money is used very directly to influence the political system. All sorts of pressures are brought to bear on people through their families and through threats on their jobs."
The immigration team, made up of seven Britons and a Dane, is trying to establish the newly-formed Bosnian State Border Service (SBS) along 1,616km of land border. The SBS now controls 36 of 52 international crossings – the rest are staffed by poorly paid police – but hundreds of minor crossings are unmanned.
The difficulties for the SBS are apparent at Hum where, 100ft above the river Drina, a steel bridge spans the snow-covered gorge dividing Montenegro, in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, from Srpska, the Serbian sector of Bosnia.
In a hut on the Bosnian side, Jagos Matovic, a border guard, said people arriving with Turkish passports had only to show they had the equivalent of £33 for each day of their stay. Most were waved through by guards who lacked the technology or training to check the documents.
Mr Johnston said: "A lot of officers think that if people are transiting into Western Europe that's not a problem for Bosnia. We have to educate them that it's creating lots of problems and that Bosnia wants to be part of Europe." Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia want to be part of the EU.
Bosnia is also a transit point for thousands of Chinese migrants heading west from the Federal Republic. Mr Leese said there were 50 new Chinese arrivals on each flight into Belgrade from Moscow.
"I asked [the Yugoslav authorities] how many leave, but they have no record," he said. "They are probably being shipped across the northern border and through the Serbian part of Bosnia."
Many of the 58 Chinese migrants found dead at Dover in June 2000 had travelled via Sarajevo, as had eight mainly Turkish migrants found dead in a shipping container in Ireland last month.
The British immigration team is likely to be called in by the Belgrade government to tighten border security. A similar request has been made by Romania. The group is proving effective at Sarajevo airport, where British-bought forgery detection equipment and new questioning techniques have disrupted the smugglers.
The new vigilance, together with the introduction of a visa requirement for Iranian visitors, reduced "disappearing" airline passengers to 8,400 last year, compared with 25,000 in the previous six months.
But Mile Juric, the SBS chief, said the trafficking gangs had switched tactics. He said: "Because of the measures we have undertaken at the airport we can sense bigger pressure from Turkish citizens on the land border crossings."
Once in Bosnia, most migrants head for Sarajevo, from where couriers will ferry them onwards. They gather in the Bascarsija district, where the architecture recalls Sarajevo's Ottoman past. In Humska Ulica street a group of Turks congregated at an international telephone booth to arrange the next stage of their journey.
Others head straight to the taxi ranks at the city's bus station. Vaha Srce, a taxi driver, said that "all last year" he had been driving the six-hour journey to the northern town of Bihac. His passengers were always Kurdish, always had the US$200 fare (£140) and often asked for the same hotel. Bihac is on the Croatian border, and from there it is just a short hop to Italy and the EU.
The clampdown on people smuggling is also made difficult by more than one million unexploded mines in the border areas. Mr Leese said: "There is no way you are going to get immigration officers walking around here. But the people who planted the mines are the same ones who are now taking money to show illegal immigrants across the border."Reuse content