The Problem of Begging: Bosnia

By • on July 23, 2012

A post-conflict country such as Bosnia, which goes through an utterly difficult transition, is extremely convenient for the proliferation of criminal activities. A country with an enormous and complicated state apparatus and a complex legislature has difficulties tackling even the simplest violations of the law. In such countries it is the weak and unprotected that most often suffer.

The Roma are among the most vulnerable minorities in Bosnia. Uneducated or without a job, for many the only way out is begging. Someone has deftly taken advantage of that situation turning it into a business. On the other hand, nearly every citizen has been an accomplice in this unlawful activity, since everyone has at least once felt pity and offered “half a mark” to a woman with a baby in her arms or a child standing next to a traffic light.

Whether we approach this issue from the assumption that this is a matter of organized crime, or a social phenomenon typical of countries with high poverty rates, everyone can agree about one thing – at the moment no one can help Roma minors as they are trapped in a vicious circle. Those who should be held accountable and systematically fight this epidemic are surprisingly uncoordinated  regarding this issue.

The information flow and levels of authority of executive government agencies, at least regarding the issue of minors involved in organized begging, are ridiculous to say the least. The first address we demanded answers from was the Ministry of Interior of the Federation entity. However, the authorized persons from this agency referred us to the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Interior (MUP KS).

They told us that MUP KS knew the details of the action “The Prince and the Pauper” aimed at apprehending organizers of panhandling. But the MUP KS told us we should  rather talk to the State Prosecutor’s Office, which they said was the main agency in charge of the aforementioned action. We subsequently did, but the prosecutor’s office had no answer either.

All of this goes to confirm the introduction to this story. A complex country, with a complex state apparatus and at times vague laws and levels of authority can only result in one thing – chaos in which the unprotected get hurt.

In order to address this, the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to have a clear strategy. However, there is no strategy on state level for the prevention of begging involving minors, but some activities have been initiated toward its development. The existing legal regulations have thus adequately acknowledged the problem of panhandling in which utterly unprotected children are involved.

In 2009, the Ombudsman for Human Rights conducted an analysis with the aim of checking whether the country’s legislation is harmonized with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, with the conclusion that the problem of panhandling has not been adequately addressed.

When we talk about the causes of begging, we most often bring up the social dimension. It is, however, also a matter of organized exploitation of children running away from their families and others. On the other hand, we have mentioned the influence of organized crime on panhandling. The authorized persons in the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of the Interior gave us a reply which at least partly confirms this is in fact a matter of organized crime.

“Organized crime has its specifics and characteristics, therefore, panhandling involving minors can take the form of organized crime,” said the authorized persons in MUP KS.

There is no clear strategy or legal regulation protecting children from this kind of exploitation. At the moment, the only salvation for Roma minors we see every day on the streets throughout Bosnia are the projects, activities, initiatives and actions undertaken by NGOs. These are, of course, merely ad hoc solutions, not long-term ones.

The NGO Otaharin from Bijeljina, a Roma non-governmental organization from the Republika Srpska entity, has dealt with the prevention of begging since it was founded. Even representatives of the MUP KS have mentioned its activities in tackling this issue.

This NGO could probably serve as an example of good practice. The model they have adopted is at this point probably the best way to combat this social phenomenon. The NGO Otaharin has signed a Protocol on Conduct and Cooperation of Relevant Authorities for the Protection and Providing for Children Found Begging with the Municipality Bijeljina, the Center for Social Work and the Center for Public Security Bijeljina.

This Protocol aims at ensuring the highest possible quality of cooperation and work of relevant institutions on tasks pertaining to combating panhandling involving minors. The signatories of the protocol have committed to participate in combating the use of children in panhandling, as well as for protection on the local level. The Municipality has committed to establishing an efficient exchange of data among all agencies.

As part of its regular activities, the Center for Public Security Bijeljina is obligated to inform the Center for Social Work about every child they find panhandling. A social worker interviews each child and gets in touch with the parents whom they also interview. The NGO Otaharin then takes over the children and provides housing for them until their parents appear to collect them.

With clearly delineated tasks and legal obligations, this problem too can be tackled. However, the whole chain of preventing children from being exploited in begging schemes and getting them off the streets depends exclusively on donations. The Protocol signed in January 2012 stipulates that this shall be implemented as long as circumstances allow, that is, as long as there are sufficient funds, and until a Day Center or a shelter is opened.

As long as this problem is approached without a state-level strategy with clearly delineated tasks and coordinated institutions, it can only grow more difficult to handle. Individual NGO projects are not the solution. Non-governmental organizations are not the ones that should be starting initiatives. The state should step up and tackle this issue. Until then it is pointless to discuss the number of children who beg, their gender and age distribution.

The following questions arise: how many of these children have birth certificates; is the child panhandling even registered anywhere or does it belong to the group of “invisibles”. We also know that individuals often migrate from one entity to the other with begging as the only motive.

While working on this story we received a shocking reply which brings up many other questions, especially given the fact that it came from a law enforcement agency.

We posed the following question to authorized individuals in the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of the Interior: Is the problem of panhandling among minors most prominent among members of the Roma population?

“Regarding the mentioned question it can be said that, for the most part, children stemming from Roma families are involved in panhandling which can be accounted for in the context of their tradition and the way they are raised in their families “, was the reply we received from the Sarajevo police.

If one receives such an answer from an agency such as the ministry of interior, is it even worth to discuss further how the exploitation of minors through organized begging can be combated?! If MUP KS is of the opinion that it is a tradition for children in Roma families to be raised as beggars, than the situation is altogether more serious than it seems.

This article originally appeared on Tocak, a news and information portal on and for the Roma communities of the Balkans operated by Transitions and four partner organizations in Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia.