‘RM Child-Health’: safeguarding the health of refugee and migrant children in Europe
More than 1.3 million children have made their way to Europe since 2014, fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty in their own countries. They include at least 225,000 children travelling alone – most of them teenage boys – as well as 500,000 children under the age of five. In 2019 alone, almost 32,000 children (8,000 of them unaccompanied or separated) reached Europe via the Mediterranean after perilous journeys from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and many parts of Africa – journeys that have threatened their lives and their health. Many have come from countries with broken health systems, travelling for months (even years) with no access to health care and facing the constant risks of violence and exploitation along the way. Many girls and boys arriving in Europe have missed out on life-saving immunization and have experienced serious distress or even mental health problems. They may be carrying the physical and emotional scars of violence, including sexual abuse. The health of infants and mothers who are pregnant or breastfeeding has been put at risk by a lack of pre- and post-natal health services and of support for child nutrition. Two girls wash a pot in the common washing area of the Reception and Identification Centre in Moria, on the island of Lesvos, in Greece. Two girls wash a pot in the common washing area of the Reception and Identification Centre in Moria, on the island of Lesvos, in Greece. Child refugees and migrants also face an increased health risk as a result of crowded and unhygienic living conditions during their journeys and at their destinations. Even upon their arrival in Europe, refugee and migrant children and families often face continued barriers to their health care, such as cultural issues, bureaucracy, and a lack of information in their own language. Southern and South East European countries are at the heart of this challenge, struggling to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable refugee and migrant children. And now, an already serious problem is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Refugee checks on his son
With financial support from the European Union UNICEF launches the ‘RM Child-Health’ project to strengthen vulnerable refugee and migrant children’s health
– Under the Health Programme of the European Union, the Directorate General for Health and Food Safety has committed a project grant to UNICEF to support work ensuring refugee and migrant children and their families have access to quality health care and accurate health information in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Spain, Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia. Refugee and migrant children and their families often have more health-related risks and face a number of barriers accessing quality health care. Many children and families also live with severe emotional distress due to the trauma of fleeing home, undertaking dangerous journeys and experiencing abuse and exploitation, including sexual and gender-based violence. The global COVID19 pandemic further exacerbates these health challenges. “With the ongoing pandemic, protecting every child and adult’s right to health care and accurate heath information is paramount. This collaboration with the EU Health Programme will help ensure the most vulnerable refugee and migrant children will have better access to primary healthcare services, psychosocial support as well as violence prevention and response services,” said UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia and Special Coordinator for the Refuge and Migrant Response in Europe, Ms. Afshan Khan. The project ‘RM Child-Health’ will help improve the health of refugee and migrant children by improving their access to life-saving immunizations, mental health and psychosocial support, gender-based violence prevention and response activities as well as maternal and newborn health care and nutrition support. Information materials on health-related risks and services available for refugee and migrant populations will be created and shared. Medical interpreters and cultural mediators will be deployed to support communication between children and families and health care providers. The project ‘RM Child-Health’ will also support training programmes so frontline health care workers can better respond to the specific needs of refugee and migrant children and their families. In parallel, national health authorities will benefit from technical support to develop, update and improve the implementation of health policies and address bottlenecks in national health systems that currently prevent refugee and migrant children from accessing services. Refugee mother feeding her baby at ADRA community centre in Belgrade. UNICEF/UNI220342/Pancic
Strengthening the implementation of health policies
The initiative also promotes and supports multi-disciplinary approaches and teams to address the complex causes of health problems among refugee and migrant children – from trauma, anxiety and over-crowded conditions, to lack of hygiene facilities and immunization. As a result, support from the ‘RM Child-health’ initiative builds trust between refugee and migrant families and health providers. At the Centre for refugees and migrants near Bela Palanka in south-eastern Serbia, for example, the needs of refugee and migrant women have shaped the development of the Community Centre run by ADRA, with its Mother and Baby Corner for women with infants. Here, women can take part in language classes, sports activities and, crucially, in workshops about their own health and rights. “ The most important thing is that all the advice from our doctor is in line with their economic circumstances and current living situation [in Reception centres],” explains social worker Andja Petrovic. “The advice is tailored to their life and I think they particularly like that, because they can see that their situation is acknowledged. Because when they go to a doctor [in other facilities], they get advice that they can’t follow because they don’t have the living conditions for it.” Also in Serbia, funding from the ‘RM Child-health Initiative’ supports work by UNICEF and the Institute of Mental Health that looks beyond the provision of basic health care to assess the scale and nature of substance abuse among refugee and migrant communities. This cutting-edge field research will guide the development of materials and capacity building specifically for health and community workers who are in regular contact with young refugees and migrants, helping these workers to identify and tackle substance abuse by connecting children and youth to support services. As one researcher involved in the research commented: “Most of those children have spent several years without a home or any sense of stability. They can't make a single plan about the future since everything in their life is so uncertain. I can't begin to imagine how frightening that is.” By building greater rapport between frontline workers and children, and by equipping those workers with the support, skills and resources they need, the ‘RM Child-health’ initiative is helping to transform health policies into health practice. This vital work has been particularly crucial in 2020, as frontline workers have had to confront – and adapt to – the greatest public health crisis in living memory: the COVID-19 pandemic. Logo This story is part of the Project ‘Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe’, Co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative).It represents the views of the author only and is her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.