UNICEF Emergency Response Office in Slovakia
For every child in Slovakia, protection.
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The war in Ukraine abruptly changed the lives its 7.5 million children. Around 5.9 million people, including 1.2 million children, are currently displaced within Ukraine. Millions have fled the country: 7.9 million refugees, of which 90 percent are women and children, have fled to other European countries. Altogether, 27.3 million people, including 7.1 million children, need assistance in Ukraine and in 19 countries in Europe.
Slovakia opened its doors to Ukrainians. Since February 2022, more than 1 million people have crossed the borders into Slovakia, and around 100,000 registered for Temporary Protection in the country. With just over 5 million people residing in Slovakia before the beginning of the war, refugees now represent close to 2% of its population.
Slovakia responded quickly, effectively, and compassionately by mobilizing a large wave of solidarity for a humanitarian response that involved state institutions and municipalities, as well as civil society organizations and individuals, from its onset. The government strongly welcomed the assistance from UN organizations, including UNICEF, UNHCR, IOM, and WHO to support the emergency response for Ukraine through existing government and municipal systems.
Through interventions in the areas of Child Protection, Education, Social Protection, and Health, as well as Early Childhood Development and Adolescent Development, the Emergency Response Office in Slovakia supports national and local authorities, as well as civil society organizations, to expand their capacities and deliver emergency assistance and support services. By doing so, it aims to ensure that Ukrainian, Slovak, and children of other nationalities living in Slovakia can benefit from improved services and support.
Our programmes in Slovakia
Children are often the greatest victims in wars. The traumas they endure, both during active conflict and displacement, risks having long-lasting impacts on their mental health and their ability to adapt to a new country. In addition, children on the move are vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and abuse, with many – especially women and girls – facing risks of trafficking and gender-based violence. In such contexts, protection of children and women, comprising more than 80 percent of the Ukrainians in Slovakia, becomes fundamental.
During arrival and transit, addressing risks of family separation, identifying and protecting unaccompanied and separated children, and preventing trafficking and exploitation are one of the first priorities to address. Mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of children and caregivers is an imperative throughout the displacement cycle. Children with disabilities, who usually face additional barriers to protection and inclusion, require particular attention.
A key priority for UNICEF’s work is to support the authorities in the prevention of and response to violence, exploitation, and abuse of children arriving or transiting in Slovakia, as well as supporting the integration of those that have registered for Temporary Protection in the country.
Since April, three Blue Dot support hubs have been set up in areas bordering Ukraine and in Bratislava, providing information, safe spaces, and referral to further services. In cooperation with UNHCR and civil society organizations, UNICEF provides psychosocial support, access to child friendly spaces, case management, referrals, and information. UNICEF also works with border management and law enforcement personnel to enhance their preparedness and quality of response.
UNICEF has been strengthening the capacity of the national child protection system to prevent and respond to violence against children, effectively work with displaced families, and provide solutions for unaccompanied and separated children. UNICEF supports national and local institutions, including the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, and Families, and the Municipality of Bratislava and other municipalities, to train social workers and other response staff.
To strengthen the reach and coverage of the child protection system, UNICEF supports civil society organizations in delivering services in various settings. UNICEF supports case management, and mental health and psychosocial support for children in the largest collective accommodation center Gabčíkovo and is expanding services in similar settings. Other partners provide community-based protection spaces and hubs, case management, and hotline services. By the end of December 2022, more than 21,000 children were reached with case management services, more than 400,000 children and caregivers benefitted from mental health support interventions, and more than 90,000 children and caregivers accessed safe spaces and hubs.
In Slovakia, UNICEF supported a paradigm shift towards community-based mental health services. This provides more opportunities for prevention, normalization of feelings, and inclusion of children and their caregivers in local communities, and promotes mutual help. Mental health and psychosocial support are also being delivered through child friendly spaces in the Blue Dots, Play and Learn Hubs, and in schools.
In December 2022, UNICEF, together with the League for Mental Health, launched a national social media campaign #PomáhajmeSi (Let’s help each other) aimed at normalizing emotions and linking mental wellbeing to mutual aid. The next phase will introduce coping mechanisms to different relevant target groups. The campaign was supported by the President of the Slovak Republic, Zuzana Čaputová.
To support the inclusion of children with disabilities in national protection systems and services, UNICEF is strengthening the capacity of the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family, and the Migration Office. UNICEF has also partnered with civil society organizations to address social norms that hinder the inclusion of children with disabilities and their caregivers, and to fill gaps in services.
As the war in Ukraine risks to become a learning crisis, it is crucial to ensure that the development and learning of refugee children and adolescents continues. Opportunities to learn and play help children and adolescents deal with adversity and trauma, by allowing them to make sense of their experiences and feel a sense of normalcy in their new environment.
While close 34,000 children aged 0-17 were registered for Temporary Protection in Slovakia as of December 2022, only less than one third were enrolled in school, including kindergartens, primary and secondary schools. Many children and adolescents, especially those in their last years of high school, continue to follow the Ukrainian curriculum through online classes. However, as attacks on energy and communication infrastructure persist in Ukraine, online learning is often interrupted.
Despite efforts to enroll Ukrainian students in Slovak schools, many challenges remain, from learning Slovak language, to integrating into a new environment and culture, to developing new social networks and balancing learning with leisure time. For Slovak teachers, additional support is required to enable inclusive approaches to pedagogy.
For the youngest children, providing play and learning opportunities in safe spaces and supporting their parents and caregivers to provide nurturing care are critical to protect their healthy development during times of crisis. The early childhood period is the time when promoting a culture of peace and social cohesion makes a true difference, as the pace of brain development is at its peak. Play and learning experiences are a natural habitat for promoting and cultivating multiculturalism and social cohesion. However, even before the war, national and local systems in many regions of Slovakia have been overstretched, lacking adequate numbers of preschools kindergartens.
The sooner children and adolescents can play, learn, and interact with peers and adults in safe learning environments, the faster they catch up and recover – particularly the most vulnerable children. Children with disabilities and with developmental delays face additional challenges, including due to the lack of Ukrainian speaking personnel that is trained to address their needs.
UNICEF’s response leverages the refugee crisis to revisit and strengthen education and early childhood development services for all children in Slovakia and promotes municipal, regional, and national partnerships. Through this approach, so far 40,433 children have accessed formal and non-formal learning opportunities, and 23,181 children have benefitted from learning materials.
At the national level, UNICEF works with the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sports and the National Institute for Education and Youth (NIVAM) to ensure a system-wide approach to the inclusion of Ukrainian children in the Slovak education system. The partnership with NIVAM also provides non-formal learning activities for adolescents and youth, including Slovak language and socialization opportunities, to empower and inspire the next generation of leaders and change makers.
At the regional and local levels, UNICEF works with municipalities and NGOs to develop and scale up play and non-formal learning services and expand municipal capacities for school enrolment as well as new, innovative services to promote children’s learning and development. The immediate response included learning support, Slovak language acquisition, and mental health and psychosocial support to children and caregivers. These interventions focus on longer-term system strengthening and service expansion efforts at the national level.
In addition, UNICEF established 23 Play and Learning Hubs across 13 municipalities, providing a range of services that cater to young children’s needs, including through mental health and psychosocial support interventions. Through the Hubs, UNICEF also aims to support the social integration of caregivers and parents through parent support groups, mental health support, referral services, language classes, counselling, and additional support for children with developmental difficulties and their families.
For adolescents, the Ukrainian School in Evacuation supported by UNICEF provides non-formal learning on national subjects of the Ukrainian school curriculum, including Ukrainian language, literature, and history, as well as learning support in mathematics and English, career guidance, leadership and financial literacy, and Slovak language. Moreover, psychosocial support is provided through art therapy.
Although Slovakia grants “urgent and necessary health services” for Ukrainian citizens registered for Temporary Protection, many Ukrainians face challenges in accessing support. What is “urgent and necessary," however, is often left to the judgment of individual doctors, creating a situation in which quality of health care received by refugees can vary significantly. Ukrainian children tend to have significantly lower vaccination rates compared to Slovaks and front-line health workers are not trained to deal with vaccine hesitancy.
The key challenge in the mid-long term is the management of chronic diseases, control and management of infectious and communicable disease, and provision of specialized mental health services and psychological support. In addition, there is a shortage of doctors, particularly pediatricians and nurses, with some regions being underserved even before the crisis. Under the existing legislation, Ukrainian health workers can provide services only under the direct supervision of a senior Slovak health worker, due to the shorter academic curriculum and mandated training required for doctors in Ukraine.
Support to recognition of qualifications of Ukrainian health workers is one of four areas of cooperation between UNICEF and the Ministry of Health, in addition to immunization and early childhood development, specialized mental health support, as well as health promotion and health education, including through parenting programmes. In collaboration with the Regional Health Authority in Bratislava, UNICEF supports the provision of primary healthcare services in the Bratislava region, hosting over 30,000 refugees, including more than 12,000 children. Services are provided by two general practitioners, two pediatricians, one gynecologist, and one psychiatrist under the supervision of a senior Slovak doctor. Pediatricians and breastfeeding counselors are integrated into the Blue Dots in Bratislava, Košice and Michalovce.
Since 15 July 2022, primary healthcare services have been provided to over 43,000 children and women through UNICEF-supported mechanisms, including consultations for mental health, referrals to higher levels of care, and vaccination of children against measles, polio, and so on.
Every refugee crisis, including the one caused by the war in Ukraine, deprives families of accommodation, jobs, and the ability to meet the most immediate needs as their stable sources of income are lost. While some can rely on savings for a period of time, most families face challenges to ensure their socio-economic survival.
The majority of Ukrainian refugees are women and children and therefore socio-economically vulnerable. The adult refugee population is primarily composed of single mothers or elderly people who are less able to work due to child care responsibilities or age. Almost half of the refugee population in Slovakia is not engaged in any form of work. Humanitarian cash support therefore plays a key role as it represents the main source of income for many families and individuals in the country.
The UNICEF Emergency Response in Slovakia, together with UNHCR, IOM and the Red Cross, in close coordination with the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family, rapidly set up a system of cash transfers to support vulnerable refugee families. The primary response strategy was to mirror the existing benefits of the national social protection system with the objective of both supporting the refugee population and strengthening social cohesion between refugees and host communities.
For the first few months, UNICEF paid material needs benefits for poor households and a carer’s grant for caregivers of children with disabilities and severe medical conditions. The caseload for cash schemes has been transferred in the meantime to the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family who will continue to support the refugee population. This allowed for a successful integration of the refugee population in the national social protection system and will ensure long-term support. Moreover, UNICEF also supported all Ukrainian children aged 0 to 17 with a one-off education grant and is paying a one-off winterization grant to support vulnerable families during the coldest months.
Since June 2022, a total of 22,346 refugee households were supported with cash benefits, with a total of over 11 million Euro disbursed. A hotline provides beneficiaries with all relevant information. Feedback from beneficiaries indicates a very high satisfaction with the cash support and that cash is primarily spent on basic child necessities such as food, clothes, health, and education.
In 2023, UNICEF Slovakia will continue to deliver on its commitment to support Ukrainian children and families with essential cash support, while increasingly linking cash with education and child protection services and using a social behavior change approach to leverage cash for the most urgent child needs.
Social and Behaviour Change
After the escalation of the war in Ukraine, the Slovak society responded by mobilizing an unprecedented wave of solidarity, with many individual citizens donating their time, efforts, and resources to help those that fled the war. However, the effects of the war, including inflation and soaring energy prices, seem to erode some of the solidarity and increase the prominence of negative sentiments towards refugees in the country according to recent polls.
Together with pre-existing challenges in ensuring the availability and accessibility of some public services in Slovakia, negative attitudes pose a significant challenge to the inclusion of children and families from Ukraine.
Similarly, some attitudes held by Ukrainian families, such as hesitancy to enroll their children in school in Slovakia or to vaccinate them, can create barriers to their integration in society or pose risks to their well-being.
Empowering individuals and communities to adopt positive practices and lowering barriers that hinder society from becoming more equitable, inclusive, and cohesive are intrinsic components of all UNICEF programmes in Slovakia, conducted through Social and Behaviour Change interventions.
Social and Behaviour Change is a set of approaches that promote positive and measurable changes toward the fulfilment of children’s rights. To do so, UNICEF works with communities and authorities to understand and influence the cognitive, social, and structural drivers of change. It relies on social and behavioural evidence as well as participatory approaches to create and adapt programmes to the humanitarian challenges faced by those they affected.
In Slovakia, Social and Behaviour Change interventions range from the delivery of messages on the services provided to refugees to mechanisms that enable them to participate in decision making processes about the support UNICEF and its partners deliver. For instance, the #PomáhajmeSi (Let’s help each other) campaign included a strong focus on the promotion of prosocial behaviours, such as mutual support between Slovak and Ukrainian children.
Similarly, the Streets for Kids project implemented with the Metropolitan Institute of Bratislava, creates space for activities designed to facilitate the inclusion of Ukrainian refugee students. Through the project, all students of ten schools with the highest numbers of Ukrainian refugees in Bratislava have the opportunity to shape the access to their respective schools and public spaces in a participative manner. While addressing physical obstacles to access through group work, the project also aims to contribute to the integration of Ukrainian students.
In addition, UNICEF is also collaborating with and building the capacity of municipalities to address social cohesion at the local and community levels. This is also captured by the joint creation of integration plans for vulnerable children and families at risk of social exclusion, as well as the support of various cultural and sports activities.
Planning and monitoring
UNICEF's humanitarian action for children for the Ukraine refugee crisis is focused on interventions that save lives, alleviate suffering, maintain human dignity, and protect the rights of affected populations. To manage and deliver its humanitarian action effectively and efficiently so that achieves its expected results, UNICEF utilizes results-based planning and monitoring process.
A key step for evidence-based programming for UNICEF lays in the gathering and analysis of data and information on the situation of refugee children. As the Government of Slovakia faces significant challenges in the acquisition of data about refugees, their needs, and the obstacles they face in accessing services and integrating into society, UNICEF supports public institutions to improve the collection and use of administrative data in partnership with academic institutions and civil society organizations.
For additional information
To follow progress made on UNICEF’s Emergency Response in Slovakia, please see the Humanitarian Situation Reports.