We have recently witnessed that millions of people had to flee their home country due to the Russian-Ukrainian war, and there are thousand of children among the refugees who have to be protected. Interview with Martina Tomic Latinac child protection specialist and child rights expert at UNICEF.
It was said during the first days of the war that about eight million refugees were coming from Ukraine. Now, we can still hear that about 10,000 people are coming to Hungary every day. How long will it be the case?
This is something that we do not know either. We actually have a lack of access to data. Having reliable data would be very important because they could help us to understand the situation, to know where the refugees are now and to plan which locations need our support. Hungary has traditionally been a transit country. People would not usually stay here, they just travel through the country and then they have some other plans, for example to reach Germany, a Scandinavian country or France. This was the case back in 2015-2016 during the refugee-migrant crisis.
Ukrainian citizens do not immediately seek temporary protection when they flee, at least this was my experience in Poland. First, refugees want to get information, they want to decide for themselves where to go next. For many of them staying in this country is only a temporary solution. Later, they might realize that this is not a temporary stay any more, and it takes time for them to decide if they want to stay here or go elsewhere. Speaking about Hungary, many people are just transiting. Many of the refugees who are coming from the Transcarpathian region have dual citizenship or they speak Hungarian. For them it is more likely that they will stay in Hungary, or eventually they will return to their homeland. What we know for sure is that 34, 000 people have requested temporary protection and it is actually granted for them. However, we also know that among the refugees, there are Hungarian citizens since – as mentioned before – they have dual citizenship and will not apply for temporary protection. They have come here because they speak the language, they hope to find some opportunities, or sometimes they even have their family here.
What is the main difference between the countries in the case of protecting children?
Our experiences in the neighboring countries are very different. Ukraine was a country with the highest number of children in residential care institutions. They had more than 90,000 children placed in institutions, many of them evacuated to neighboring countries Here, in Hungary, during the first wave of refugees, there were few groups like this, but they continued their trip to Germany, Italy, France etc. However, in Poland, there is a significant number of children without parental care. They used to live in residential care institutions, and now there is an urgent need to provide them alternative care in Poland in family environment if possible. But Hungary also has another group of children. They are young athletes who want to continue their career, they want to continue their trainings, but they have very limited opportunities to do that in Ukraine. So, they are coming to Hungary, and sometimes they are sponsored by celebrities, companies or different sports associations.
I don’t know exact numbers, but these are the main differences that I can see between the neighboring countries. In terms of the total numbers, Poland was definitely the most affected, because at the same time, it has the longest border with Ukraine. But we have significant numbers also in other neighboring countries, as well. 34,000 people have been provided protection here in Hungary, while in Croatia the latest number is 20,000. It would be useful to look at the statistics on a European level, but I am not sure that they are available just to compare the data. It would also be the way to figure out where the children are.
How efficient do you think the system is? How the refugees are kept here in Hungary?
This crisis cannot be compared to any crisis that happened before. Basically, we have people fleeing Ukraine, and they are entering EU member states which are high-income countries. Any person would expect that in EU we have highly functioning child protection, social welfare and health education systems. But when you have this huge number of children, we actually see that even well-equipped, well-resourced systems are not sufficient any more, because they cannot cope with such an increased case load. This is where UNICEF has an added value. We started supporting different municipalities to help them to strengthen their capacities to cope with increased needs. For example, additional social workers are needed, interpreters, other
professionals and we support partners to employ them. We provide support when it is needed to ensure that children can benefit from the national system. Because if you rely on the temporary services that are provided solely by NGOs or some organizations, it is not sustainable. NGOs and different service providers are not adequately supported, they cannot maintain their operation on the long run. They can continue their work for a certain number of months, but then comes the question: what next? So, I think it is important that we continuously highlight the need for connecting the children and families with the services that exist within the national system and make national education, child protection and health system inclusive for refugees.
Is there any similar solution to the one that can be found in Debrecen?
I think what is amazing in Debrecen is the cross-sectoral collaboration. It was very visible. This kind of collaboration is usually very challenging, even when you don’t respond to the needs of refugees, for example, in the case of families who live in precarious situations. Sometimes it is surprisingly difficult, it really depends on the people, on their connections, on their ability and readiness to effectively collaborate with each other. Children have complex needs, and they cannot be supported only by one system. A young child who doesn’t speak Hungarian or has lived in very deprived circumstances needs additional support from the very beginning. This child needs to know how to hold a pen, how to learn the language, he needs to learn some basic social and emotional skills. Then this child needs to have access to a kindergarten, in order to access education the child needs to be vaccinated etc. So there is an obvious connection between different systems, the health system, child protection and the educational system. At the same time, if this child faces certain difficulties in his family or he needs some additional social services, then usually these services are provided by the child protection system. So there is an evident need to effectively coordinate and collaborate in the case of each and every child. We need to really look at those linkages between the sectors, and jointly determine what a child needs. We need to know what his best interest is to find a durable solution. This is a team effort, it is never done only by one case worker or only by one system. And this is something what I see positively, and something that we decide to support through the partnership with the municipality of Debrecen. Here we collaborate and support a child and family welfare centre, Dorcas Camp, a Roma community centre which operates also in Debrecen, so multiple partners have already joined hands, and this is a very positive example of how things should be done at other municipalities. In other municipalities, this inter-sectoral collaboration sometimes is more challenging. This program in Debrecen is a flagship program that we can promote as a very good practice. I think municipalities can learn from each other, because the challenges that we are facing are very similar, and one of the potential next steps could be to create a platform to exchange examples of good practice. We also should create opportunities where we can exchange ideas, where we can learn from each other, because some of the solutions have probably been identified and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
What about the cooperation with other organizations, for example with the Red Cross?
UNICEF is part of the UN family, but we also collaborate very closely with civil societies or organizations and different charity organizations, as well. Here in Hungary, UNICEF is implementing the refugee response in two tracks. We are working closely with the municipalities, but we are also complementing this support by establishing partnerships with relevant NGOs which operate in the given area. In Debrecen, we have a partnership agreement with the local government and through that partnership we also support the work of the child and family welfare centre DAEFI and EU Roma community centre, but we also support the Dorcas, so we always try not to duplicate, but to really make sure that all the relevant partners have sufficient technical capacity, but also financial resources, because all these services cost a lot, additional funding is needed in order to maintain services.
We took some similar approach in other towns, for example in Budapest where we also work together with the municipality. We also work with some relevant NGOs. So here in Hungary we actually established partnership agreements with numerous civil societies or organizations, both on national and international level. We are supporting services when there is an evident need for it, and when the municipalities need additional support. So far, we have been supporting different program interventions that can reach not only refugee children, but we are also targeting other vulnerable groups of children, for example children with Roma origin, children with disabilities or mental health problems, children living in extreme poverty or precarious family situation. We have been working together with the municipality of Záhony, Debrecen, Győr and Budapest where we have also signed partnership agreements and hopefully we will expand further and reach those communities where people still need some additional technical support from UNICEF. At the same time, we also have collaborations with other UN agencies. We as an organization have a guiding principle which says to always stay neutral and impartial. Our objective is really to serve those children who are in highest need regardless of the political situation, religious background, geographical areas etc.
What other programs does UNICEF have in Hungary?
We have been working in several areas: one is education where we have been supporting children so they can benefit from both the formal and non-formal educational activities. We also have been working on the distribution of different learning supplies to create a condition to children to benefit from accelerated learning, because many of the kids who are from Ukraine are falling behind. They haven’t been able to regularly attend school in Ukraine because of the COVID and recently because of the war. They have suffered from certain gaps that also affected their learning outcomes.
Besides education, we also extensively working in the area of child protection. Child protection is a very broad area, it includes different child protection services that can be beneficial for both refugee children and children from host communities, for example mental health and psycho-social support, access to case management services provided by the statutory social workers, parenting support programs etc.
Another area where we work is related to health, prevention or different health conditions, but we are also ensuring that people have access to relevant health services.
Finally, I have to mention the social protection part of our work. At some of the municipalities where there is a need, and where municipalities already had experience in doing this type of programmes, we also support a cash assistance program. Through existing mechanisms and systems UNICEF supported additional financial assistance to the refugees, but also some to other vulnerable groups of the host community based on certain eligibility criteria that have been discussed and agreed with municipalities. It will help a family to benefit from additional financial support to respond to some of the increasing needs of the children, because those families who are coming from Ukraine lost their income and their jobs. Some of them cannot find a job here in Hungary immediately, or they are working, but their income is very low. Through cash assistance programme, families can meet the needs of their children. We are also doing the post-monitoring distribution to see how this cash assistance has actually been utilized, and we have learnt that families are sometimes using it to cover their basic needs, for example they pay the utility cost from this money because the prices have increased, and they have been struggling with covering their heating costs. Sometimes they buy food from this money or clothes for their children or some other supplies.
Which organization is your favorite in Hungary?
I must say that throughout my work here in Hungary, I have witnessed immense commitment from different organizations with very limited resources to provide assistance. Different organizations have different roles, capacities and resources, so I cannot really say that any of them is my favorite. Part of UNICEF mandate is to support both national and local governments, but also civil society organizations. This crisis is also an opportunity for all organizations to strengthen their capacities so that they can be better prepared in the future, and they can be more resilient as an organization. It also applies to national systems. They need to be more resilient in the case of a sudden increase of case load. A crisis can always happen, and we are very fragile. If there is anything that this Ukrainian crisis has taught us is that how fragile we can be when we need to suddenly mobilize a huge workforce to address the needs of refugee children.