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Life on the margins: The fate of internally displaced Ukrainian children

Olha Hinkina, second from left, attends an art session at the recovery camp for children and their mothers affected by the war near Lviv, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 3, 2023.
Olha Hinkina, second from left, attends an art session at the recovery camp for children and their mothers affected by the war near Lviv, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 3, 2023. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Rebekah Daunt
Published on Updated
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In the final instalment of this two-part series, Euronews investigates how children in Ukraine have had their lives upended by Russia's invasion. How are NGOs Save the Children and UNICEF tackling challenges posed by internal displacement and disruptions to education?

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As of January 2023, there were 6.2 million internally-displaced people (IDPs) in Ukraine. The United Nations estimates that more than 3.5 million children across the country have "severe to catastrophic levels of needs". Approximately 75% of parents have reported that their children have symptoms of psychological trauma as a result of the war with impaired memories, shorter attention spans, and a decreased ability to learn.

"We try to work with families inside of Ukraine, those trying to get their children back [those forcibly deported to Russia] but also families who have had their children returned", Amjad Yamin, Save the Children’s Advocacy, Campaigns, Communication and Media Director for Ukraine told Euronews.

"This is one of the situations that is very sensitive for families. Sometimes after they get their children back they don't even want to talk about it, because they worry that something else might come after," he said.

Collective centres have been set up to cater to Ukraine's displaced population. There are some 7,000 collective centres in the country but many of them lack child-friendly facilities and infrastructure for small children.

In addition, Save the Children has reported that collective site managers do not have the experience to deal with diverse groups of IDPs, such as ethnic minorities, people with specific needs, female-headed households with children, older people, etc., which can exacerbate IDP vulnerabilities and introduce barriers to accessing services.

To better address the needs of children, the charity has a large focus on reintegration through what Save the Children calls 'child-friendly spaces'. These centres cater to children who are not up to speed with the education curriculum, provide space for parents to discuss their financial needs, and help children process difficult emotions through designated therapy dogs.

Educating a lost generation

Education comes in two parts, both formal and social as Ajman Yamin explained: "Children are trying to form their opinions of what life looks like. It is vastly important for them to socialise, and meet each other. And this is why we continue to push not only to work with the Minister of Education but also work with families on improving the quality of learning and making sure there are opportunities for children to speak to each other, learn from each other, and socialise which will help them develop a healthier view of themselves and of life."

For many children in Ukraine, remote learning has become the norm. The shelling of critical infrastructure and residential areas has forced many schools in frontline areas to conduct lessons online.

Poor internet connection, energy blackouts, and a lack of suitable smart devices can disrupt lessons, while less than 30% of school children have access to a laptop or tablet.

As a consequence and after two years of remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many children are not educated or do not have the age-appropriate skills required by Ukraine's Department of Education.

These are some of the most important, formative years that children go through, they affect how they grow up... Sadly, now we are talking to children in Ukraine who think normal is not being able to go to school and play with your friends and live in peace.
Amjad Yamin
Save the Children’s Advocacy, Campaigns, Communication and Media Director in Ukraine

To facilitate both online and in-person learning, Save the Children has developed digital learning centres (DLCs) and mobile learning stations. Teachers are transported on purpose-fitted buses with learning materials to war-torn areas to provide families and children with educational support and to allow children to socialise together.

UNICEF is also on the ground providing essential services such as medical care, psychological support, family support, clean water and education.

"UNICEF is delivering both humanitarian assistance and humanitarian recovery all the way along that spectrum from bottled water and medical kits in frontline locations all the way through to supporting health clinics with power generation and all the equipment they need to get wastewater treatment plants back online and functioning again", Damian Ranch, the Chief of Communications for UNICEF in Ukraine told Euronews.

"One of the most important things, as far as UNICEF is concerned, is ensuring that wherever children may be, no matter what the set of circumstances is, children get the opportunity to access learning, whether it be in a formal school setting or whether it be online," he said.

The sooner children are able to learn, develop and explore, interact with their classmates and peers, the less vulnerable they feel, the more normal they feel. And it's quite critical, actually, to manage, again, the psychosocial aspect of this, because there is no pause button on learning.
Damian Rance
UNICEF's Chief of Communications in Ukraine

For UNICEF, the focus remains on ensuring that children return to education as soon as possible. However, many humanitarian organisations in Ukraine depend on private donations to continue their work.

As Russia's full-scale invasion nears the one-and-a-half-year mark, some experts fear compassion fatigue will hit financial supporters.

"The world has been very generous to Ukraine and to us [Save the Children] in particular," said Yamin. "But sadly, the level of funding cannot meet the level of need, and the number of people in need is big" he continued.

Ukraine has a land mass of 603,700 square kilometres making it the second largest country on the European continent after Russia, this adds further logistical challenges. "It can take more than 14 hours just to get from the west to the centre, so that puts large demands on us," explained Yamin.

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"I think beyond UNICEF, it's something that all organisations working in conflict zones worry about. But we have seen a significant decline [in funding] in 2023 compared to last year. I think people are looking ahead to 2024 and are worrying about how much programming they can put in place", echoed Damian Rance.

While online learning is helping to bridge the gap for students in the interim, Rance warned that schools will not be repaired overnight. 

"Recovery and rebuilding are not just about infrastructure, this is also about rebuilding the community and society here in Ukraine so that it is child-centric and child-focused, one that puts children and their needs at the centre. And that requires, of course, significant resources," he concluded.

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