Safeguarding the health of refugee and migrant children during COVID-19

The ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative for refugee and migrant children rises to the challenge

Angela Hawke
13 May 2021

"When COVID arrived here, I thought: ‘It's over, it will spread throughout the building’. I didn't think it was possible to avoid the spread of the outbreak. Instead, we have had very few cases and we owe this, above all, to the support we received from INTERSOS and UNICEF." 

Josehaly (Josy), a refugee living in Rome
A field worker from Intersos fastens a mask for a young refugee girl in Rome.
A field worker from Intersos fastens a mask for a young refugee girl in Rome.

The ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative is funding work across five European countries to keep refugee and migrant children connected to health services. While the COVID-19 pandemic was not foreseen when the initiative was first launched, the strategic principles underpinning the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative – flexibility, responsiveness to real needs, and building on what works – meant that UNICEF and partners could swing into action to safeguard the health and wellbeing of refugee and migrant children and overcome intensified and unprecedented challenges.

Since the launch of the 27-month ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative in January 2020, activities were adapted quickly to address access to health services during the COVID-19 crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Serbia. This €4.3 million initiative, co-funded by the European Union Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, has shown refugee and migrant children and families how to protect themselves and others, and that they have every right to health care – even in a pandemic.

The rapid escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe in 2020 exacerbated the already worrying state of health and wellbeing of the region’s most vulnerable people, including refugee and migrant children, and has had a protracted impact on their access to health and other vital services. The situation has been particularly dire for refugees and migrants who are not in formal reception sites, and who are, therefore, harder to reach and monitor. Refugee and migrant families living in over-crowded conditions with limited access to sanitation are at high risk of infection. These communities have often had to face a ‘double lockdown’, confined to their settlements and camps and having little or no access to accurate information on protecting themselves and others. 

The additional pressures have been severe. UNICEF and its partners in Bulgaria have seen appeals for support double from 30 to 60 cases per day. Far more refugees and asylum-seekers have been in urgent need of financial and material support, having lost their incomes because of the pandemic. There have been increased requests for support to meet the cost of medical care for children, which is not covered by the state budget, and more requests for psychosocial support.

This increase in demand has, of course, coincided with serious challenges for service delivery. Restrictions on movement have curtailed in-person services, and partners have had to adapt the way in which they connect with refugees and migrants. The pandemic has had a direct impact on the provision of group sessions to share health-related information, as well as on the timely identification of children and women suffering from or at risk of health-related issues. The impact on vital services for timely and quality maternal and child health care, psychosocial support, recreational and non-formal services, and on services to prevent and respond to gender-based violence (GBV) has been profound.

In Bulgaria, UNICEF and its partners were able to take immediate measures with support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative to alleviate the impact, including online awareness raising and information sessions and the use of different channels for communication, including social media. UNICEF’s partners, the Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria (CRWB) and the Mission Wings Foundation (MWF) adapted service delivery to allow both face-to-face interaction (while maintaining social distancing for safety) as well as assistance online and by telephone. Partners were able to continue to provide direct social services support while also delivering online consultations to refugees and migrants on cases of violence, as well as referral to specialized services.

In Greece, the initiative supported the development of child-friendly information posters and stickers for refugee and migrant children and their families on critical preventive measures and on what to do and where to go if they experience any COVID-19 symptoms.

In Italy, the initiative has supported outreach teams and community mobilization, providing refugee and migrant families with the information and resources they need to keep the pandemic at bay. In Rome, for example, health promoters from Intersos continued to work directly with refugee and migrant communities in informal settlements, not only to prevent infection but also to keep their spirits high, as one health promoter explained:

"We have organized housing modules that are not only designed to keep the community safe, but also to stop loneliness overwhelming the people forced into isolation. The entire community has assisted people affected by the virus by cooking, washing clothes and offering all possible support, particularly to the children." 

UNICEF and its partners in Italy, as in other countries, have aimed to maintain continuity and unimpeded access to key services. Child protection, for example, has been mainstreamed into all project activities, and additional measures have been introduced, with a ramping up of activities to raise awareness and share information. UNICEF partners adapted quickly to the pandemic, with Médecins du Monde (MdM) activating a hotline number to provide remote counselling and psychological first aid (PFA). Centro Penc shifted to remote case management and individual psychological support, strengthening the capacity of cultural mediators to support GBV survivors, with UNICEF’s support. Young people were consulted and engaged through UNICEF’s online platform U-Report on the Move, with young U-reporters sharing information on the increased risks of GBV, as well as on available services.

In Serbia, 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.


Building on what works

As these examples show, support from the ‘RM Child-Health initiative’ has helped UNICEF and its partners rise to the challenges posed by the pandemic over the past year. The initiative has enabled frontline workers to accelerate, adapt, expand and intensify work that was already underway, and to mobilize social media and other channels, as well as existing service delivery entry points (e.g., child friendly spaces in reception centres) already used and trusted by refugee and migrant children and families.

Responding to pandemic-related needs created opportunities that proved to be valuable entry points for stronger connections between refugee and migrant communities and health services, paving the way for collaborations on a whole range of health issues. As well as revealing the serious challenges faced by refugee and migrant populations in accessing health care – even in pre-COVID-19 times – the pandemic health response has also highlighted solutions and lessons that could positively influence approaches in the future. In Serbia, for example, the pandemic led to a dramatic increase in demand for hygiene packages for refugee and migrant families: a stark reminder of the need to pre-position such supplies as a vital part of emergency preparedness.

Logo - Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe

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 European Health and Digital 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.