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

The ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative for refugee and migrant children

Angela Hawke
Refugee girl in Greece
UNICEF/UNI372245/Canaj/Magnum Photos
01 February 2021

The ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative has funded work across five European countries to keep refugee and migrant children connected to health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, with partners doing whatever it takes to meet their health needs, even during the tightest of lockdowns.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted daily life for each and every one of us, its impact on refugees and migrants worldwide has been particularly profound. Like many of us, they have reported higher levels of depression and feelings of isolation. But they face additional problems when it comes to treatment for COVID-19 infection, with almost one-quarter (22 per cent) citing fear of deportation as a reason for not seeking medical help, alongside a lack of available health-care and uncertainty about their right to such care.

In Europe, the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative has adapted at speed to this fast-moving situation across Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Serbia. This 24-month, €4.3 million initiative, which was launched in January 2020 by the European Union Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, has supported innovative ways to show children how to protect themselves and others, and to reassure refugee and migrant communities that they have a right to health care in any situation – even during a pandemic. Partners on the ground have worked tirelessly, often risking their own lives to protect the health and well-being of refugee and migrant children during this crisis.

The over-crowded conditions in which so many refugee and migrant children and families live can make it particularly difficult to follow the basic rules for COVID-19 prevention – such as frequent handwashing and social distancing. They have often faced a ‘double lockdown’ – people whose movements were already restricted have been further confined to their settlements and camps, adding to their stress and their feelings of isolation. Many lack access to the technology or mainstream channels that provide accurate and current information. And some may be distrustful of health authorities and personnel, or even State-sponsored health messages.

Building on what works

Fortunately, there has been no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ to address some of these challenges. Instead, support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative has tapped into – and enhanced – approaches that were already in play. The channels and places that refugee and migrant children have always used – social media, U-Report, child-friendly spaces in reception centres and more – have been mobilized to share life-saving information. And COVID-19 prevention has been added to all ongoing activities, including the work of mobile health teams, as well as workshops with children and adolescents that were already scheduled and that were shifted very quickly over to online formats.

In Bulgaria, UNICEF and the Council of Refugee Women of Bulgaria (CRWB) have provided materials in Arabic and Bulgarian on COVID-19 prevention. In Greece, simple and engaging visuals on COVID prevention and on how to maintain good nutrition during the pandemic have been developed and shared. Child-friendly information posters and stickers on COVID-19 prevention are now on display wherever refugees and migrants congregate.

In Italy, UNICEF and its partners have developed and disseminated key messages on how to prevent COVID-19 infection once lockdowns end and when living with someone. A short video has also been developed and disseminated in Italian, English and French. And the Intersos mobile health team in Rome has added information and screening sessions for the early detection of COVID-19 cases to its ongoing work, with funding from the ‘RM Child-Health Initiative since June 2020.

“My job is to inform people about what is going on about the coronavirus, how they can protect themselves and how to protect other people,” says Outreach Worker Abdoul Bassiet, who lives in Rome and is originally from Togo. “The main problem we face in this period is that migrants and refuges are not aware of the risks of COVID-19. My job is to meet them and to explain what the virus is, how they can protect themselves and the rules they have to follow in order to be safe."

In Serbia, unaccompanied children at the Sjenica Refugee Reception Centre have taken part in lively, participatory sessions on COVID-19 prevention. The Centre itself is a prime example of strong cooperation between the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative and the partners on the ground: UNICEF, the Danish Refugee Council and the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration of the Republic of Serbia.

“It’s clean. It’s awesome!” says 16-year-old Ali, originally from Afghanistan, who arrived here alone. “During a lesson on COVID-19 I learned about prevention measures, how to put on a mask, and how to avoid crowds. They would never give us masks anywhere before this. But in Serbia we get them for free, along with hygiene products.”

And the results are clear: thanks to the support from workshop staff, there had been no recorded cases of infection in the centre as December 2020

Workshop for refugee in Serbia

Support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative has been crucial throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, helping UNICEF and its partners in all five countries ramp up the work that was already underway. The pandemic has also proved to be an entry point to build stronger connections between refugee and migrant communities and health services that could help to address a whole range of health issues. As well as highlighting the very real challenges faced by refugee and migrant populations in accessing health care, the pandemic has also revealed solutions and lessons that could shape future interventions.


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.