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.
Improving health literacy among refugee and migrant children
UNICEF has worked with partners and with young refugees and migrants on the ground to identify information gaps – work that has, in turn, guided the development of health literacy packages across all five countries on a range of crucial health issues, from immunization and nutrition to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and gender-based violence (GBV). The assessment has shaped the development of detailed plans on how to ensure that health messages reach their audience and have an impact. The health literacy packages have also drawn on existing materials, including Facts for Life , My Safety and Resilience Girls Pocket Guide and an adapted version of the UNFPA curriculum: ‘Boys on the Move’. Refugees and migrants face a chronic lack of health information in their own languages, and a lack of information that reaches them through the channels or people they trust health navigation Some common priorities have been identified by refugees and migrants across all five countries, including access to immunization and other primary health care services, breastfeeding and young child feeding, and the prevention of GBV. They have also flagged up the pressing need for more mental health and psychological services. Other issues have emerged as priorities in specific countries, including cyberbullying and online safety in Italy, and substance abuse among young people In Serbia – the focus of a new in-depth UNICEF study. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic is a new and urgent priority for refugee and migrant communities – and one that has heightened the health risks they already face by curtailing their movements and their access to health services. A consultation with refugee and migrant adolescents and young people living in Italy has revealed major gaps in their knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, drawing on an online survey, a U-Report poll and a series of focus group discussions. It has highlighted some common misunderstandings, such as the myth that masturbation causes infertility, and continued perceptions around the importance of a woman’s virginity at marriage, as well as knowledge gaps around menstruation, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The consultation also found, however, that the young participants want to know far more about this crucial area of health. As one young man from Guinea noted during a focus group discussion: “often young people do not want to know if they have an infection, also because they are not aware that these can be treated. It is so critical to raise awareness on STIs tests and treatment options.”
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
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.
Breastfeeding: the best gift a mother can give her child
Breastmilk saves lives, protects babies and mothers against deadly diseases, and leads to better IQ and educational outcomes, yet rates of breastfeeding in Europe and Central Asia are low, with only 23 percent of the wealthiest families and 31 percent of the poorest breastfeeding up to the recommended age of two. Empowering and enabling women to breastfeed needs to be at the heart of countries’ efforts to keep every child alive and to build healthy, smart and productive societies. “Breastfeeding is the best gift a mother, rich or poor, can give her child, as well as herself,” said Shahida Azfar, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director. “We must give the world’s mothers the support they need to breastfeed.” A mother breasfeeds her baby at a maternity centre in Tashkent region, Uzbekistan. A mother breasfeeds her baby at a maternity centre in Tashkent region, Uzbekistan. The early initiation of breastfeeding – putting newborns to the breast within the first hour of life – safeguards infants from dying during the most vulnerable time in their lives. Immediate skin-to skin contact and starting breastfeeding early keeps a baby warm, builds his or her immune system, promotes bonding, boosts a mother’s milk supply and increases the chances that she will be able to continue exclusive breastfeeding. A mother learns to breastfeed her baby at a maternity hospital in Fergana, Uzbekistan. A mother learns to breastfeed her baby at a maternity hospital in Fergana, Uzbekistan. Breastmilk is safe as it is the right temperature, requires no preparation, and is available even in environments with poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water. It’s also more than just food for babies – breastmilk is a potent medicine for disease prevention that is tailored to the needs of each child. The ‘first milk’ – or colostrum – is rich in antibodies to protect babies from disease and death. A patronage nurse teachers a mother how to breastfeed in Kyzylorda city, Kazakhstan. A patronage nurse teachers a mother how to breastfeed in Kyzylorda city, Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, UNICEF has been working with patronage nurses to support mothers to breastfeed their children. The project has been running for several years and includes two visits during pregnancy and nine visits until the child reaches the age of three. As a result, there was a 14 percent increase in the number of children who were exclusively breastfed in the pilot region. A patronage nurse visits a family in Kyzylorda city, Kazakhstan. A patronage nurse visits a family in Kyzylorda city, Kazakhstan. There are several reasons why a mother may not be able to breastfeed, or does not wish to do so. Reasons include low awareness of the importance of breastfeeding and long-term impacts, as well as not knowing how to breastfeed properly which can subsequently cause the mother a lot of pain. Patronage nurses work with mothers to try to overcome these obstacles. A mother breastfeeds her baby, while the father and the older son support them. Mother Jovana breastfeeds her son Aleksa (two-months-old) while older son Ognjen (18-months-old) and husband Nikola support her at a clinic in Serbia. Breastfeeding is not a one-woman job. Women who choose to breastfeed need support from their governments, health systems, workplaces, communities and families to make it work. UNICEF urges governments, the private sector and civil society to create more enabling environments for breastfeeding mothers including arming mothers with the knowledge to make informed decisions, and providing them with the support they need from their families, communities, workplaces and healthcare systems to make exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months happen. Smiling parents watch as their baby breastfeeds at a maternity unit in Armenia. Smiling parents watch as their baby breastfeeds at a maternity unit in Armenia. In Armenia, UNICEF, together with the ministry of health and local health authorities, have created a sustainable parental education system at maternity and primary health-care facilities across the country to encourage breastfeeding and provide support to parents. In a UNICEF-supported space for refugee and migrant families, two mothers breastfeed their babies. In a UNICEF-supported space for refugee and migrant families in Serbia, two mothers breastfeed their babies. During the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, UNICEF stepped in to provide support for children and mothers. Support included providing private spaces for breastfeeding mothers, nutritional guidance and breastfeeding support. UNICEF supports action to improve infant and young child nutrition across Europe and Central Asia, aiming to ensure that every child has the best possible nutritional start in life. Through its global campaign, Every Child ALIVE , which demands solutions on behalf of the world’s newborns, UNICEF urges governments, the private sector and civil society to: Increase funding and awareness to raise breastfeeding rates from birth through the age of two. Put in place strong legal measures to regulate the marketing of infant formula and other breastmilk substitutes as well as bottles and teats. Enact paid family leave and put in place workplace breastfeeding policies, including paid breastfeeding breaks. Implement the ten steps to successful breastfeeding in maternity facilities, and provide breastmilk for sick newborns. Ensure that mothers receive skilled breastfeeding counselling at health facilities and in the first week after delivery. Strengthen links between health facilities and communities, so that mothers are ensured of continued support for breastfeeding. Improve monitoring systems to track improvements in breastfeeding policies, programmes and practices.
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.
Strengthening national health capacity for refugee and migrant children
At first glance, helping a 10-year girl from Iran, now living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, get a new pair of glasses might seem a simple thing. For Maisa, however, this is the end result of a continuum of intensive support, from identifying a girl who struggles with an eye condition, to connecting her to a skilled ophthalmologist. And now Maisa stands in front of a mirror, trying on the glasses that will enhance her life, learning and play. Such a momentous day is only possible when an established health system is equipped to accommodate and respond to the complex needs of refugee and migrant children. Support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative aims to reinforce and enhance health systems across five European countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Serbia) so that these systems can deliver the high-quality services that are the right of every child – and that every child needs, regardless of their origins. The aim: to ensure that health systems catch every refugee and migrant child who is in danger of slipping through the gaps. And there are additional benefits: a health system that works for these vulnerable and excluded children is a health system that works for every child, and that can reach those who are so often the very hardest to reach. This 24-month, €4.3 million initiative, which was launched in January 2020 by the European Union Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, aims to strengthen the capacity of health systems to deliver health care to refugee and migrant children. That means ensuring access to life-saving immunization, to mental health and psycho-social support, and services to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, as well as maternal and new-born health care and nutrition. Stronger health systems are needed to overcome the bottlenecks that confront so many refugee and migrant families when they try to access health care. “ The profound challenges that often confront populations – especially children – on the move can include cultural and language barriers, stigma and discrimination on the part of health providers, and a lack of detailed medical records or paperwork,” says Dr. Basil Rodriques, UNICEF Regional Health Advisor. “They may also have their own reasons to distrust state-provided services, including fears of deportation.”