UNICEF Refugee Response Office in Poland
Supporting families who’ve fled conflict and the rights of every child in Poland
The war in Ukraine has displaced families at a scale and speed not seen since World War II. There have been almost 9 million border crossings from Ukraine into Poland since the conflict escalated on 24 February 2022. Of the 4 million refugees who have registered for temporary protection across Europe, almost 1.6 million are in Poland – but the true number of refugees could be even higher. Around 90% of refugees in Poland are women and children.
The UNICEF Refugee Response Office in Poland was established in record time in March 2022 to support families and help them recover from the war. We work with the national and municipal government as well as civil society partners to keep children learning and families healthy and safe. From Blue Dot Support Hubs at border crossings to Spilno Hubs in communities, from making sure children can go to school to ensuring families can access healthcare and much-needed mental health and psychosocial counseling, we support all families taking refuge and advocate for the rights of every child and adolescent in Poland, with a focus on the most vulnerable.
Visit our Spilno website for the latest information in Ukrainian for families seeking refuge in Poland. Visit UNICEF Poland National Committee website for the latest updates on fundraising in Poland for UNICEF globally, and to make a donation.
Working in partnership with Poland and its people
The context in Poland, an EU member state and high-income country has meant that partnerships are key, even more so than in other humanitarian responses. We have not looked to set up a parallel response but have instead co-designed and worked alongside the Polish government at local and central levels, and with civil society, to provide technical expertise, supplies, resources and capacity building.
Our partnership approach in Poland has been a twin track. At the national level, a systems-strengthening approach through partnerships with the Ministries of Health, Education, Justice, Family and Social Policy and the Chancellery of the Council of Ministers. At the local level, scaling up of vital frontline services in cooperation with municipalities. We have signed work plans with the 12 cities that have welcomed an estimated 75% of refugees from Ukraine. Partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society are also critical due to their local access and knowledge, helping us reach the most vulnerable, including children with disabilities and displaced Roma families.
Our programmes in Poland
The chance to learn and be in a safe space together with peers and teachers doesn’t just deliver education, it brings a crucial sense of stability, normalcy, and hope to war-affected children and young people. Our priority is to reach every child who arrives in Poland fleeing conflict to ensure they can socialize, develop and learn.
“I was sad to leave all my friends and my toys at home back in Ukraine. But at the kindergarten here I have new friends and I can play with them. This makes me happy.” — Kira, 6 years old, from Zhytomyr Oblast in the north of Ukraine
The focus of our education programme is to make sure all children in Poland who've fled the war in Ukraine can learn and thrive. Within a year of setting up our response office, we have helped more than 900,000 children and young people engage in formal and non-formal education. This includes around 200,000 children who have enrolled in Polish formal schools and preschools and around 500,000 children who have been supported with specialized support, Polish language learning, and support for digital learning in dedicated hubs for children and adolescents. More than 200,000 children and young people have also participated in extracurricular integration and social cohesion programmes, including summer and winter camps.
We invest in strengthening the Polish school system to expand access to quality education. To meet the specific needs of children coming from Ukraine, we help recruit and deploy Ukrainian teaching assistants and provide training and support to Polish teachers. We have set up IT labs and libraries and distributed digital tablets and computers to children, teachers, and schools to speed up language learning and bridge learning gaps. On top of this, we have provided preschools and schools with learning kits, classroom furniture, playgrounds and sports equipment. Our investments benefit both Ukrainian and Polish children.
Many older students want to continue to study the formal Ukrainian curriculum. UNICEF recognizes the value of this approach and has partnered with local governments and NGOs to establish Education and Development Hubs in cities with high refugee populations. Additionally, we work with NGOs to support the running of Ukrainian schools.
For children of preschool age, UNICEF has partnered with the Foundation for Child Development (FRD), and local governments to establish Early Childhood Education and Care Centres across Poland, benefitting more than 34,000 Ukrainian children in the Polish public preschool education system and more than 12,000 children with alternative and non-formal early childhood services. The centres do not have fees so mothers and caregivers coming from Ukraine can keep their children in a learning environment while they look for the employment many need to achieve financial independence.
“I am so happy I found the Spynka daycare center close to our new home... The children feel safe and calm. This helps them realize that they are not alone." — Yana, mother of three from Kharkiv, Ukraine, in an ECD centre in Lublin
Our programmes are inclusive and accessible for children with disabilities. We deliver professional development for educators on how to support learners, parents and teachers. UNICEF also supports centres for education, development, therapy and psychosocial support for children with disabilities across Poland.
Children who have been forced to flee to Poland need urgent protection from potential harm during their journey and when they settle in a new home. One of the primary focuses of UNICEF is to ensure children who’ve fled the war in Ukraine are protected from all forms of violence, exploitation, abuse and neglect. We work with partners to make sure children are provided with quality care and protection services that are in their best interests, and we make sure vulnerable children can access and receive the mental health and psychosocial support they need to survive and thrive.
"In Ukraine, we would take the children and hide in the shelters. They were really scared. Not all of them understood what was happening and why we needed to hide. Now that we are here in Poland the children feel safe." — Valentyna guardian of a group of Ukrainian children and director of a UNICEF-supported small group home in Lodz
We partner with national and local governments across Poland on strengthening the child protection system and services, policy and legal amendments, and capacity building. We train social service professionals through specialized training, peer support, and coaching programs to increase capacity.
We also work with the authorities to expand the provision of quality alternative care. With our help, unaccompanied and separated children from Ukraine have been identified and supported, including many evacuated from childcare institutions in Ukraine. Additional foster parents have been recruited and trained to care for children separated from their parents.
“In Lodz, the children prepare their own breakfast. They help each other make sandwiches and they tidy up. Performing those seemingly mundane tasks teaches them how to take care of the home, of the community they are part of, and of themselves.” — Valentyna guardian of a group of Ukrainian children and director of a UNICEF-supported small group home in Lodz
The prevention and response to violence against children and gender-based violence (GBV) is a key part of our response in Poland. We have supported women and children to access information on protection services and the prevention of violence against women and children. We have also worked in partnership with municipalities to strengthen helplines and services for victims of domestic violence and families in crisis.
We work with Ministry of Justice and other justice system partners to ensure that child-sensitive justice is available to refugee and host community children by expanding legal aid, training justice professionals, enhancing mediation, provision of information in a child-friendly manner.
Finally, through UNICEF-led Blue Dots in Poland, more than 570,000 services have been provided to children and families fleeing war in Ukraine, including mental health and psychosocial support, the use of a child-friendly space, child protection referrals, and information on healthcare, education, housing, and transport.
It’s vital those who’ve fled this brutal war have access to health care. Around 90% of the over 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees registered by the Polish government are women and children. This is a mother-and-child displacement crisis that has put much extra pressure on Poland’s public healthcare system. Low immunization rates in Ukraine mean that refugees are also at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases.
UNICEF’s health response in Poland is focused on preventing diseases through vaccines, building healthcare capacity and capability and looking after the specific needs of mothers, children and newborns.
“I believe that vaccination is important for children, for the entire population of the country. I think even during the war, we shouldn’t stop, because dangerous diseases are still nearby.” — Kateryna, a mother of two from the Kiyv region of Ukraine, now living in Poland.
In partnership with the Ministry of Health and municipalities, we’re reached more than 500,000 refugees with information on essential child vaccinations via national and local campaigns. Our cooperation with the Ministry of Health also ensured the availability of critical supplies for routine childhood vaccinations.
In close cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Poland and national partners, we provide refugee families with information on access to health services. We have ensured health screening of refugee children and caregivers identified as vulnerable and have worked with municipalities to provide essential health supplies and access to healthcare.
In partnership with the Ministry of Health, we have developed a programme to support the primary health care of up to 200,000 women and children from Ukraine. To achieve this UNICEF has made a commitment to cover 50% of the cost of health care services provided to Ukrainian refugee women and children made by the National Health Funds to health care providers across the country in the period of February 2023 to August 2023. This is a significant investment in the health and wellbeing of the refugee population.
“My toys are back in Ukraine. My bed is there as well. I also miss my friend Danya, we used to play a lot.” — Mykyta, 6 after receiving his vaccinations at a medical centre in Krakow
In the area of infant and young child feeding, we’re working closely with the Ministry of Health and a local NGO, to encourage mothers to exclusively breastfeed and to provide information and support to ensure refugees are able to feed and care for their babies and young children as they adapt to life in a new country. We have established mother support groups consisting of lactation advisors, neurological speech therapists, psychologists, and physiotherapists in 11 maternity wards, out of which 10 have milk banks, which are the first link of assistance in the case of breastfeeding difficulties.
In addition to the promotion of infant and young child feeding, we’ve provided warm meals and complementary food to children in youth camps, preschools and primary schools, as well as accommodation centres.
Children fleeing Ukraine are all suffering from the invisible wounds of war and need early and consistent intervention to improve their well-being, prevent serious mental health issues in the future and start over their lives in Poland. The psychological toll of conflicts is vast – rates of common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression can double in emergencies. More than 60 per cent of Ukrainian refugee mothers in Poland are experiencing high or severe levels of distress according to the results of a recent UNICEF survey.
According to data from September 2022, 86 per cent of refugees are separated from an immediate family member with most refugee households composed of women and children.1 More recently arriving refugees are also exhibiting worse signs of psychological distress due to longer exposure to the conflict and the loss of belongings or destruction of their homes.
Providing psycho-social support to refugee children and women is critical to their ability to heal, adapt to new environments, and eventually rebuild their lives. Such support can include counselling, group therapy, and community-based activities that promote resilience, coping skills, and social connections. Early interventions can also help prevent the development of more serious mental health issues down the line.
1 Multi-Sectoral Needs Assessment conducted by Inter-Sector Coordination Group and REACH, September 2022
Because supporting the mental well-being of refugees now will help prevent long-term negative impacts in the future, mental health and psychosocial support are included across all our work. This includes community-based programmes targeting mental health and well-being, such as helplines, psychological counselling services, day care and support centres, parenting programmes, intensive social work support, after-school activities, recreational activities, specialized therapy, social cohesion programmes and our work to enhance the capacity of services for children with disabilities.
Our holistic approach to mental health supports children, adolescents, but also their caregivers and wider communities. Our programmes have reached almost 700,000 children and caregivers through different layers of mental health interventions, from psychological first aid in Blue Dot Support Hubs at busy transit areas and accommodation centres to community-based interventions across 12 municipalities hosting the majority of refugees from Ukraine. This also includes the employment and training of social workers, mental health and psychosocial support professionals and child psychologists to provide specialized counselling and referral to psychiatric support when and if needed.
UNICEF also supports municipalities and NGOs in the area of mental health and psychosocial support through Spilno Hubs. These six integration hubs provide a range of services aimed at alleviating psychological distress, facilitating integration into host communities and enhancing resilience by bringing normalcy back into their daily lives. This includes providing vital information, legal and career consultations, positive parenting sessions with caregivers, peer support groups for adolescents, art therapy with children and referrals to additional specialized services.
Through a child-centred approach, we also work to strengthen children’s environments by supporting the establishment of learning hubs and daycare centres which enhance early childhood development and education. UNICEF also works on strengthening the capacities of local psychologists, community nurses and education professionals to provide various mental health services in their communities as well as psychosocial support to Ukrainian children enrolled in Polish schools and kindergartens.
“Back in Zaporizhzhia Oblast I worked as a psychologist. When it became dangerous for us to stay home I decided to come to Poland with my son Semen, he is 10 years old. Right after we arrived in Poland we were afraid of everything. The sound of the sirens, alarms, ambulances. My son was very stressed. Now he is getting better and I am happy to be able to help other children. I know what they have been through.” — Yulia works at a UNICEF-supported SUN centre in Krakow
Young people make up a large proportion of those who've fled the war in Ukraine to Poland. Their situation is critical. Adolescence is already a challenging time and a major life disruption and heavy stress during this period can have impacts that last into adulthood.
Vulnerable youth need to continue their education and build their skills. They need health and housing. They need mental health and psychosocial support. They need belonging and connection. They also need to have agency and a voice - and they are ready to play an active role in the response.
Mental health and a lack of engagement or participation is also a major concern for young people who have been dislocated from their homes, lives and country. But through active participation, they can be empowered to play a vital role in their own development as well as in that of their communities.
UNICEF is working to engage, empower and support young refugees as they start to recover and integrate into life in Poland. More than 335,000 young people have participated in our Adolescent Development and Participation programs. Our focus is on building the skills of young people and providing opportunities to connect and integrate.
UNICEF has worked with the Scouts in Poland to develop activities for young refugees. The programme included summer and winter camps, and benefitted over 235,000 young people from Ukraine, covering activities such as first aid, volunteering training, cultural evenings, sessions on understanding rights and entitlements as refugees, communication and team building.
“It was terrible. My brother and I watched how a military base near our house was being bombed. When we came to Poland, I felt really sad and homesick. I did not go out, did not want to do anything. But I am really glad I went to this summer camp. Everyone here is surprised that I am equally good at ballroom dancing and boxing. That’s because I have been doing both for the past six years!” — Artem from Sumy, Ukraine.
Around 40,000 children and young people have benefitted from extracurricular activities held over summer and winter breaks. These were organized by UNICEF with municipalities and NGOs and provided valuable opportunities for young people to get ready for school while having fun and starting, or continuing, the road to recovery.
UNICEF is also giving young people tools to express their opinions and concerns. Our youth engagement digital platform U-Report Europe is encouraging young refugees from Ukraine to stay connected and informed. The social media messaging tool also answers questions on access to health, education services, and other opportunities available to them and their families in Poland.
Our programmes also reach young people from Ukraine through psycho-educational workshops led by Ukrainian-speaking psychologists, which aim at helping build resilience, process what they have been through, and strengthen their mental health. In partnership with municipalities and CSOs, we also provide support for Ukrainians seeking job counselling.
It can be hard to enroll in school when you do not know how long your family will be in the country or book vaccinations when your immunization records have been left behind. It is hard to know what you are entitled to or what your rights are as a refugee if they are not explained to you in a way you understand. Refugees can struggle to find information about services or feel intimidated and confused by the procedures of a new country.
The UNICEF Refugee Response Office in Poland reaches, engages, and collects feedback from vulnerable families who have fled the war. This is to ensure there is awareness, demand, and access to essential services among refugees coming from Ukraine. This includes education, health, protection from violence, and mental health support.
"Here in Przemyśl there are four trains coming each day from different cities in Ukraine. All of them are full. Some people have a plan when they arrive, but many of the families need more support to decide what to do next. In this context, the information we are providing is crucial." — Tavita, Blue Dot worker in Przemysl train station, Poland
Through our social and behaviour change work we have reached more than 3.8 million people entering Poland from Ukraine with lifesaving information. This work includes understanding the people we want to reach, creating a single source of verified information, and creating demand and providing information in places where it will be seen.
UNICEF has created the Spilno information website which provides up-to-date and lifesaving information in Ukrainian for parents, youth and children in Poland. The portal collates and publishes the latest verified information from trusted sources on essential services, legal matters, financial assistance, health, education, and mental health support.
Through our combined efforts on social and behavioral change, we have seen an increase in demand among refugees for health and education services across Poland. More than 1.5 million Ukrainian caregivers across Poland were reached through campaigns designed to increase their confidence in vaccines for their children, and our ‘Back-to-school’ campaign in 2022 encouraging refugees to enrol in school in Poland reached more than 620,000 people.
"We are observing that after consulting with mothers and informing them about all the positive effects immunization has on children's health, they are very interested and try to catch up with all the overdue vaccinations." — Ewelina, a nurse working in Krakow, Poland
The war in Ukraine has left families in shock, desperate for safety, and in need of essential supplies. UNICEF is on the ground providing support and supplies for families in need. Decisive and timely humanitarian action in Poland protects families and children.
Many children and families arriving in recent months have more complex needs than refugees who came before them. They have not had the resources to leave earlier or are fleeing from areas where active military operations are taking place, or occupied territories, meaning they are especially vulnerable.
“After long and often arduous journeys, people arrive disoriented. Coming to a new country, starting life in a new, unknown reality can be scary and overwhelming, especially for refugees with children. At Blue Dots, they can rest, children can play in child-friendly spaces, while parents get information and practical support to help them on their onward journey or with settling in." — Joanna, 23-year-old Scout from Poland
We provide immediate support through Blue Dot Support Hubs established jointly with UNHCR and partners. Seven UNICEF-led hubs have been set up in critical locations including border crossing points, train and bus stations, and accommodation centres. The hubs are central to our response. The Blue Dots are safe spaces where Ukrainian and Polish staff provide up-to-date and accurate information about accommodation, travel, and services.
They guide people on their rights and entitlements under temporary protection status and asylum procedures and they help with family reunification. Local NGOs, including Scouts, have been central to the work at Blue Dots, which is a true hub for people coming from Ukraine and looking for support to start again.
More than 570,000 services have been provided to children and families fleeing war in Ukraine at the hubs. This includes mental health and psychosocial support, the use of a child-friendly space, child protection referrals and information on healthcare, education, housing and transport.
We have also provided thousands of crucial supplies and products including first aid kits, medical equipment, hygiene supplies, food items and education materials. Our work to procure and distribute essential supplies will keep going as refugees continue to arrive in Poland who need our support.
Latest updates from Poland
Country Coordinator biography
Dr. Rashed Mustafa Sarwar has over 25 years of diverse work experience with UNICEF and other UN agencies in politically transitional and developing countries, in countries of middle and upper-income status as well as in extreme humanitarian and post-conflict situations. Dr. Sarwar has served as the UNICEF Representative to Malaysia and Special Representative to Brunei Darussalam from 2020 to 2022, UNICEF Representative in the Republic of Belarus from 2015-2020 and UNICEF Deputy Representative in Azerbaijan in 2009-2015. From 2006 to 2009, Dr. Sarwar served as Chief of the UNICEF Office for North Caucasus, Russian Federation, where he was responsible for leadership, guidance and direction for programme planning, implementation and analysis. From 1995 to 2006, Dr. Sarwar worked for UNHCR in East Timor and Georgia and WFP Tajikistan as well as for UNICEF in South-East Asia (East Timor and Myanmar).