Empowering refugee and migrant children to claim their right to health: Improving health literacy
“I have always had to behave ‘like a girl’ and I am not used to being asked for my opinion, but you ask me to say what I think during these workshops.” A 13-year-old girl from Syria describes the impact of empowerment workshops in Serbia Boy is drawing a picture. UNICEF-supported activities for children on the island of Lesvos, Greece The ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative has supported work across five European countries to improve health literacy among refugee and migrant children over the past year. As a result, they and their families have learned about key health issues, about the health services available to them, and how to demand health services as their right. Through its support for health literacy – the ability to find, understand and use information to take care of your own health – the initiative has helped to dismantle some key barriers to health services for refugee and migrant children and their families in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Serbia. This 27-month, €4.3 million co-funded initiative, which was launched in January 2020 by the European Union Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, works alongside young refugees and migrants to ensure that they have accurate health information in their own languages – information that reaches them via the channels they use and the people they trust. Importantly, the initiative makes them more aware of their right to health care in these European countries – welcome news for those who have fled from countries where good quality health care is either unaffordable or unavailable. With support from the initiative, UNICEF and its partners first worked with young refugees and migrants to identify gaps in the information available to them and in their own knowledge. This informed the health literacy packages that have been rolled out in all five countries over the past year, spanning a wide range of topics from immunization and nutrition to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender-based violence (GBV). The packages themselves have been backed by detailed plans to ensure that their messages reach their audiences and gain real traction. Great care has been taken to ensure that information materials are culturally appropriate, gender sensitive and child-friendly, and that they are suitable for the ages and backgrounds of their audiences. Cultural mediators and interpreters have helped to overcome language and cultural barriers, while materials have been made available in, for example, Arabic, Farsi and Pashto. Activities have often been led by trusted professionals, such as nurses, physicians and psychologists who are already familiar with the needs of refugee and migrant children and their families. Materials have been shared through channels and locations that are well-used by refugees and migrants, including asylum offices, temporary reception centres, health centres, Mother and Baby Corners (MBCs), workshops and discussion sessions, during outreach activities and via social media. As a result, health literacy is now embedded into existing activities with refugee and migrant children and parents across all five countries, and is based firmly on their views and needs.
A Mother and baby corner - a place of health and serenity
“Milos was born at a Reception centre, here in Serbia. We have been changing addresses ever since. We are currently staying at the Asylum centre in Belgrade. These are all difficult circumstances, where I, as a mother, don’t set the rules. And I find it very difficult.” Mother with a baby Sharife and her son Shahir Milos in the mother and baby corner in Belgrade, Serbia. That’s why Sharife is happy every time she visits the Mother and baby corner. The nearby Community centre, run by the humanitarian organization ADRA, houses just such a mother and baby corner, whose work is supported by UNICEF through 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). Here, mothers can spend time in a safe space for women, change their babies’ clothes and nappies, access hygiene items for their children, breastfeed in privacy and put their children down for naps, as well as participate in workshops. And most importantly, because they are living in challenging circumstances, they can talk to a doctor about the nutrition, hygiene and early childhood development and immunization of their small child, but also about their own health and the health of older children. This is particularly crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. Milos is learning through play in the Mother and baby corner. Milos is learning through play in the Mother and baby corner. The first piece of advice that mothers receive in the Mother and baby corner is always about breastfeeding – a source of food that is always available, hygienically safe and nutritious, and which boosts a child's immunity. “Breast milk provides all the nutrients a baby needs, but it also stimulates development [and] develops immunity. It helps the child to calm down, sleep better and be settled. This also helps me be calm,” explains Sharife with a smile on her face. Sharife is an experienced mother. Even so, she is very grateful for the advice she has received from the doctor at the Mother and baby corner. When Milos was six months old, she introduced solid food into his diet, while she continued to breastfeed. She recalls that Milos’s first solid food was rice cereal, and then later on vegetables, fruits and meat. The Mother and baby corner is a safe space where Milos and his mother can spend quality time together. The Mother and baby corner is a safe space where Milos and his mother can spend quality time together. “Milos likes best the carrot and apple puree I make for his snack,” explains Sharife. The needs of refugee and migrant women, according to social worker Andja Petrovic, have shaped the development of ADRA’s Community centre, where they would, as a rule of thumb, almost always come with their children. In order for women to be able to attend creative, recreational and educational workshops at the Women's centre, they needed a Child-friendly space for older children and a Mother and baby corner for women with infants. These spaces make it possible for mothers to participate in language classes, sports activities, creative workshops and, most importantly, in workshops about women's health and rights, while their children are taken care of and safe. In these challenging times, mothers really appreciate the chance to talk to a doctor about the health status of their children. “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 Andja. “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 that.” Dr Zivica Lukic explains that she talks to mothers mostly about nutrition, hygiene and how to respond to their babies’ needs. “We support mothers to establish and maintain breastfeeding, as it has not only economic benefits, but for mothers it also has emotional and physical ones. We know how healthy breastfeeding is for the child, but it is equally healthy for the mother, because it soothes and creates a strong bond between mother and child. When the baby is six months old, it’s necessary to introduce solid foods. I advise [the introduction of] vegetables that can be pureed well, such as potatoes and carrots, [as well as] rice.”
Safeguarding the health of refugee and migrant children during COVID-19
, the initiative has supported UNICEF’s efforts to improve the immunization process for refugee children and migrants by strengthening the assessment and monitoring process. As a result of such efforts, refugees and migrants have been included in the national COVID-19 Immunization Plan.
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.