‘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
Precious support in the game of life
Thanks to funding from the European Union ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, UNICEF works to ensure that all refugee and migrant children in Bosnia and Herzegovina have access to primary health care, including paediatric services and, in the case of 10-year old Maisa, a vital pair of glasses. “I will wear these glasses all the time. I hope I won't lose them during the next ‘game’", says 10-year-old Maisa.* In Maisa’s world, the word "game" does not mean playing with her friends. It is the slang she uses to describe the attempts she and her family – originally from Iran – have made to cross the border from Bosnia and Herzegovina into the European Union in search of a more a promising future. To date, all of their attempts have failed. But they will keep trying. Maisa is at the opticians in Cazin, trying to decide which eyeglasses suit her best, having been brought here previously by a team from UNICEF and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), with funding from the EU’s ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, to have her eyes tested by an ophthalmologist. Trying on glasses while wearing protective face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is an additional challenge, making it difficult for her to judge how the glasses look. Her dad, Zerin*, helps her choose and she is delighted with the purple-framed glasses that will come ‘home’ with her to the Sedra reception centre in Bihać. A pair of glass might seem like a small thing, but for Maisa, this is a joyous moment that will enhance her view of the world around her. Human lives are at stake in the game played by Maisa and her family. She has endured so many challenges since she left her native Tehran a year ago. At the time, she still had multifocal glasses that were suitable for treating her strabismus. However, the unpredictable life on the migrant route meant that Maisa lost her glasses long before the family arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her new glasses will allow her to continue her treatment for strabismus and help repair her damaged vision. Maisa at the pediatric clinic Maisa at the pediatric clinic of the Sedra Reception Center, her medical examination before heading off to the optical shop to get new eyeglasses. Back at the Sedra reception centre, Maisa talks about her hopes. She can't explain exactly why she wants her wanderings on the European continent to end happily in England, but maybe the staff of the reception centre are partly responsible for that: "They teach me English and thanks to them, I speak better because I want to be able to express myself clearly” she says to her Farsi translator, who helps to enhance communication between children like Maisa and local health services. The family’s attempts to cross the border to find a better life somewhere in the north of Europe have taken their toll on Maisa’s education. Nevertheless, her English flows with such ease and eloquence that one almost forgets she is sitting in the reception centre’s modest and crumbling paediatric clinic. She could be doing her medical examination before enrolling in a prestigious international school. The healthcare professionals at the Sedra clinic cannot estimate exactly how many children it is serving at the moment, as children so often go to ‘games’ with their families. Some return, some don’t, and new children arrive, with different health issues, of different ages and from different backgrounds. The reception centre is occupied mostly by families with children, so there has been a clear need for paediatric services for a long time. Maisa entering the pediatric clinic Maisa entering the pediatric clinic of the Sedra Reception center, where along with her medical check-ups she is practicing her English skills and conversing with the medical workers. According to its team of paediatricians, children most often come to the clinic for general health examinations, or because of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Babies are also taken care of, in addition to examinations, therapies and dressing services. If the outpatient clinic can’t provide the care that is needed, children are referred to the Bihać Cantonal Hospital or the Cazin Health Center. And it is thanks to this referral system, supported by the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, that Maisa was referred to the ophthalmologist. In total, more than 750 children were helped by the paediatric clinic between January and September 2020. "Thanks to the support of the EU ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, and the work of the DRC and our partners working within reception centres, the quality and number of services provided to children in need of health care have increased significantly since we founded the pediatric units in Sedra and Borići”, says Amila Madžak, Education officer at the UNICEF office in Bihać. “This has had a positive impact on individuals and families, and on migrant communities, as well as on wider public health. Help is also provided for unaccompanied children living in the reception centres in Bira and Miral. In addition to basic services, the paediatric care on offer also includes immunization services, systematic examinations, ophthalmological and dental services, consultations, training and coaching for children and adults. We also went through the first cycle of immunization with 500 children in the USC, and we are continuing with the next cycle in the Una Sana Canton, as well as in Sarajevo Canton." Fortunately, Maisa's problem was much easier to solve than many other health problems faced by the children of migrants, refugees and by unaccompanied minors. For many of them, this is the end of the road, with no prospect of going any further. And going further is what Maisa has been dreaming of since embarking on this unpredictable journey: the London rain, the British accent and the ability to use her eyes to their full potential. *Names changed to protect identities. 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). Logo The content of this article represents the views of the author(s) only and is his/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.
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
Oasis of health and joy
"I want to be a photographer, and you know that the most valuable tool for any photographer is their eyes," says 17-year-old Ferhat* as he contentedly nods to his reflection in the mirror, adjusting his glasses. It has been three years since he left his home in Tehran together with his parents and younger sister in search of a better life in Europe, and after years spent crossing different borders, he is no longer sure where the most serious game for a better life will take them. Game is the word that migrants use as a synonym for an attempt of crossing the border. Ferhat is currently residing in the temporary reception centre Sedra with his family. Last year they were all staying at a reception centre in Sarajevo, and according to him: wherever life brings them, everything will be fine as long as they are together. With the support from UNICEF, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) staff, Ferhat came to the opticians shop in Cazin. "After they took away all my personal belongings at the border, including the glasses, the doctor at the Sedra Pediatric Clinic estimated that I needed an ophthalmologist's examination and a new set of glasses. Next I was assigned an appointment, a team from DRC and UNICEF came to pick me up and took me to the ophthalmologist, and when my dioptre was determined on examination, they also took me to an optician's shop to choose the appropriate frame. Today, after a procedure that lasted several days, I received my new glasses. "Thank you to everyone who helped me and everyone who helped my family, and to others from the centre, for their work and desire to fulfil basic human needs even in such conditions," says Ferhat. Refugree and migrant children take part in a dental workshop Refugree and migrant children take part in a dental workshop Unfortunately his family members were frequent patients of the medical centres whose services are provided by UNICEF and DRC through DG Health funding: his mother's hand healed only a few days ago when her cast was removed - she had previously broken her arm while trying to cross the border and his father is a regular patient given his continuously high blood pressure. During his previous attempt to cross the border Ferhat damaged his old, precious glasses that he has worn for the last four years - ever since doctors discovered his hereditary vision problem. He still has the right to use the services of a children's clinic, which, in addition to basic pediatric care services include immunization services, systematic examinations, ophthalmological check-ups, dental services and consultations for parents. Sedra and Borići are classic family camps: at the time of our visit, 213 people were accommodated in Sedra - of which 53 were children, and 51 families with children were accommodated in Borići. To make everyday life more tolerable for children in reception centres, UNHCR cooperates with Save the Children, Médecins de Monde (MDM), Church World Service (CWS), World Vision, and centres for social work Bihać, Cazin, Velika Kladuša, Ključ and Hadžići; and there are frequent activities for the youngest that partner organizations regularly carry out with the intention of entertaining, but also educating children in the mentioned centres. The focus of this workshop is dental hygiene, where the children are learning all the practices and putting their skills to the test with a demonstration model. The focus of this workshop is dental hygiene, where the children are learning all the practices and putting their skills to the test with a demonstration model. During our stay in the reception centre in Borići, there was a dental workshop organized in partnership with the local polyclinic Muminović. Through a series of games, children had the opportunity to learn how to properly maintain oral hygiene, how to properly brush their teeth, who to contact in case of dental problems, and at the end of the workshop, they were all given hygiene packages containing basic dental hygiene supplies. Their excitement was not disturbed by the mandatory protective masks which prevented them from trying out the contents of their hygiene packages right away. Additionally, because everyone had to wear masks indoors, the associates of the Muminović polyclinic brought out demonstration models with which the children could practically test the knowledge acquired during the workshop. Families with children are accommodated in two temporary reception centres (Borići and Sedra) in the Una-Sana Canton (USC), and the Sarajevo reception centre Ušivak and unaccompanied minors are accommodated in all five reception centres (including the Bira and Miral centres). Currently, there are about 4,000 refugees/migrants accommodated in four TRCs in the USC area, including about 500 children, unaccompanied children and children separated from their parents. Thanks to funding from the EU Health Programme (DG Health), UNICEF BIH ensures that all refugee and displaced children have access to primary health care, which in BiH, includes pediatric services as well. *Name changed to protect the identity of a minor
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.”