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., Relief Web reports.