A mass of international migrants, turned back at the EU border, is building up in Bosnia, yet NGOs say their hands are tied by bureaucratic obstacles.
by Katie Tiffin
With thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Bosnia by EU border controls, aid organizations say that the country’s complex political process and ineffective governing have been preventing them operating. That has left some NGOs with little option but to take on international volunteers without the correct paperwork.
More than 16,769 migrants were registered in Bosnia between the start of 2019 and 15 August, according to the Migration Flow site, a platform run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). That figure is more than 15 times the total number registered in Bosnia in all of 2017.
Many of these migrants intend to use Bosnia as a transit destination on their way to Western Europe, but with EU member state Croatia aggressively enforcing border controls, it is extremely difficult for migrants to cross into Croatia, and some have been even injured in the attempt. Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which provided medical care for refugees and migrants in Bosnia’s Miral camp until January 2019, told Amnesty International (AI), that between June and November 2018, MSF staff treated up to 80 patients for injuries reportedly suffered at the hands of Croatian border guards, including broken limbs and ribs, and serious cuts and bruises.
Human rights organizations such as AI and Human Rights Watch, along with journalists, have reported Croatian border police beating and robbing those trying to cross the border.
As the number of migrants has risen, some local authorities have tried to find their own solutions.
Hundreds of refugees from Bihac have been relocated by the canton of Una-Sana to the nearby Vucjak camp, despite warnings about the site from several organizations, including IOM. Not only do unexploded landmines in the area from the Bosnian wars pose an acute danger, but the camp sits on the site of an old landfill, risking a methane gas explosion if fires are lit. The camp also lacks sanitary facilities.
IOM has refused to work at the site due to its unsuitability. The organization’s Western Balkans coordinator Peter Van der Auweraert told TOL, “We have identified additional sites where we could potentially set up accommodation for the migrants as an alternative to this site, but of course we need political approval for that … You need the authorities to engage and that has been a very slow political process.”
Van der Auweraert put the delayed response down to the “decentralized nature of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” and the failure of politicians to form a government after elections last year.
Bosnia’s notoriously complicated system of government involves three presidents – representing the country’s three main ethnic groups – who serve on a rotating basis, over a four-year term. Following elections in October 2018, parties representing the different ethnic groups have failed to negotiate to form a state-level government, thereby stalling decision-making.
Speaking on Bosnia’s N1 television channel in February, Bihac Mayor Suhret Fazlic expressed frustration that local calls for help from the central government have run into walls. “We sit down for a meeting with state ministers and then they complain to each other about how the state is not functional. That is very frustrating.” In contrast, he praised the work of international organizations, but said “I agree that we [local authorities] should help, and we have been helping since day one. But being left to ourselves in this is very difficult for us.”
On the Ground: NGOs Struggling
Meanwhile, even small, grassroots NGOs run by international volunteers struggle to operate legally in Bosnia, meaning they cannot plug the gaps in aid provision.
The authorities have already shut down one organization: Aid Brigade, an unregistered NGO run by international and local volunteers in Sarajevo that was unable to obtain the necessary legal documents. Due to the long process of obtaining work and volunteer visas, its international volunteers had been working on tourist visas. On 22 May, Aid Brigade’s head of mission, Roos Ykema said police and officials from the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs (SFA), which deals with the entry and stay of foreigners in the country, showed up at the group’s community center and took all the international volunteers to the SFA.
“The local people were allowed to go home but were told that they were not allowed to work there anymore,” said Ykema. She said that the SFA subsequently expelled the international citizens, pointing to the issue of volunteering while on tourist visas and the organisation’s lack of registration. Regardless of the reason, said Ykema, “the bottom line was that they all had to leave the country and will never be allowed to work with Aid Brigade again.”
The organization had been primarily providing food and medical support for those living on the streets of Sarajevo. In winter, the group also arranged heating for refugees who were residing in squats after being turned away from camps that were already full.
Faced with the challenge of the registration process, another organization, No Name Kitchen, has had to be “invisible” when performing some of its core functions, said coordinator Bruno Alvarez-Contreras Moran. That included providing food and clothing to migrants in the Bosnian border town of Velika Kladusa. The group also monitors and reports on violence against refugees at the border.
Although No Name Kitchen is officially registered in Bosnia, the difficulty of obtaining volunteer visas “really doesn’t give you much of a path to do things,” he said, describing the process as “almost impossible” to complete for short-term volunteers. To his knowledge, he said, the process involved “22 steps … and then you need to send it to Bosnia and translate it into the Bosnian language.” Due to the impracticality of registering volunteers, No Name Kitchen distributes food at night, changes distribution locations regularly, and strives to work under the radar.
Aid Brigade’s Ykema confirmed the difficulties of the visa process for volunteers, especially short-term volunteers, saying it was impractical for people coming to Bosnia to help out for three months to undergo a six-month visa application process.
The Service for Foreign Affairs was contacted to offer their views on the complaints of the aid organizations, but never responded.
However, IOM’s Van der Auweraert admitted that international organizations in Bosnia should accept a share of responsibility. Although many volunteers from abroad were “doing good work,” launching operations without the correct paperwork “is not the best entry point for subsequent collaboration” and may have “rubbed people the wrong way.”
He also acknowledged: “The international volunteers’ image is being tarnished by a small group of people who actually are coming here supposedly to help people but actually to push a political agenda … a no border, anti-EU, ‘Fortress Europe’ type of agenda and they use their humanitarian work to make political points.”
Resources Stretched to the Limit
As the aid workload increases and the situation in the country approaches the level of a humanitarian crisis, it is becoming more and more urgent to resolve the problem of administrative barriers to registering both NGOs and volunteers, say the aid agencies. The government’s failure to take action by creating straightforward and timely volunteer visa application processes has become a particularly acute problem in the matter of medical assistance.
“People are arriving in poor condition and many, including children, have walked for weeks. They are hungry, exhausted, sick, and are also traumatized from their journeys,” said Katarina Zoric, spokesperson for the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.
“Our staff and volunteers are exhausted, and they are still struggling to cope with the increasing needs of the people in the reception centres.” Citing “especially alarming” conditions at the Vucjak migrant camp, Zoric said: “There are hundreds of cases of scabies and other diseases.”
More volunteer nurses and doctors could improve access to medical treatment, but IOM’s Van der Auweraert said: “the bureaucratic process of getting these people allowed to operate is very complicated.”
Ykema told TOL that Aid Brigade had been providing medical assistance to refugees on the streets of Sarajevo prior to being shut down, but this medical help is no longer available.
The increased strain on the health services is particularly problematic since outbound migration of doctors from Bosnia has left the country’s health service for the domestic population underserved, according to Van der Auweraert.
“[The health service] is already struggling to provide decent care for locals, so now, with the migrants with their specific medical needs, the services are really overwhelmed,” he warned.
Katie Tiffin was a Press Start and TOL editorial intern this summer.