Since the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine in February 2022, more than 7.7 million refugees have fled the country to seek refuge in other European countries. It is estimated that 40% are children.
Save the Children’s research with over 1,000 children and caregivers in eight European countries shows that children who have left Ukraine face significant challenges adjusting to their new environment. They report higher levels of anxiety and sadness than before, and a worrying proportion do not plan to enroll or go to school. These findings are based on a survey and focus group discussions with children and their guardians conducted in Finland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania and Sweden in July and August 2022.
The impact of displacement on the well-being of children
The majority of children surveyed (57%) said they felt a little or a lot less happy since leaving Ukraine. Older children (16 years or older) seem to be most affected. Two in three (66%) older children reported feeling less happy, compared to 55% of younger children.
When asked if they had felt any negative emotions in the past month, children often said they worried about the future (55%) and felt restless (44%) and alone (44%). Older children overwhelmingly reported experiencing more anxiety (78% vs. 50% of younger children).
The feelings expressed by children are understandable psychological and emotional responses to fleeing devastating conflict, separation from close family members, and adjusting to a new country. But if left untreated, they can turn into longer-term psychosocial and mental health issues.
Welcomed by European States
The conflict in Ukraine has sparked an outpouring of support and solidarity for Ukrainian refugees from ordinary citizens across much of Europe. This has contributed to the fact that refugee children from Ukraine generally report that they feel welcome. A child refugee who fled to Poland said: “We were indeed welcomed, you might say, with open arms.
“They helped a lot…we were crying all the time because we had to leave… [but] when we got here… somehow that fear was gone. However, in all the countries surveyed, one in five children (21%) said they had experienced discrimination.
European states and the European Union have taken significant and positive steps to ensure the reception of refugee children from Ukraine. Most important was the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), under which Ukrainian refugees can quickly and easily access residence permits and have the right to education, health care and other government services.
Practical issues: access to education and other services
However, implementing PDT has proven to be a major challenge for European governments. Despite guaranteed access to education under the PDT, about a third (32%) of children surveyed had not attended school between the escalation of the conflict and the start of the summer holidays (in online or in person) and a further 25% had only attended school online. About one in four said they had no plans to enroll in a local school in the 2022-23 school year or were unsure.
These worrying results are confirmed by data on schooling in European countries. In Poland, only 41% of Ukrainian children enrolled in the country are enrolled in a local school. In Portugal, only about 4,000 of the 15,000 registered Ukrainian children in the country are enrolled in a local school.
Along with the efforts of European governments, the Ukrainian government has encouraged the use of a distance e-learning program that was developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Save the Children program staff in European countries pointed out during the September 2022 consultations that while many children may be enrolled in online education, few children seem to actually attend or engage in online education. online learning.
Importantly, the results indicate a direct relationship between school attendance and children’s sense of well-being and belonging. About half of the children surveyed said they had no friends around them, with boys significantly more likely than girls to say they wanted friends in their host community (64% vs. 52% respectively). In-person schooling has an important role to play in improving children’s sense of belonging and reducing feelings of loneliness.
European governments are also struggling to find suitable accommodation for refugees, at a time when the secondary economic impacts of the conflict in Ukraine and the resulting cost of living crisis are being felt across the continent.
This was reflected in the children’s stories. Many reported the lack of adequate housing or overcrowded housing as their main concern. Almost half (47%) said they wanted to find an apartment for their family and 43% wanted to have their own room or share a room with a sibling.
The realities of long-term displacement
Most children and caregivers interviewed said they would like to return to Ukraine one day. Three out of four children surveyed (75%) express this wish, while 18% say they are undecided. Only 7% said they had no intention of returning. Older children (aged 16 or older) were less likely to say they wanted to come back (66%) than younger children (77%).
Asked about their return plans, caregivers seemed less certain. Only 22% said they plan to return within the next six months. Almost half (47%) are undecided, while 30% have no intention of returning.
Children said that to feel more comfortable in their host community, they would need friends from the community (57%) as well as opportunities to play sports or pursue their hobbies ( 56%) and to learn the local language (54%).
The reality is that receiving countries will need to expand and adapt their social service systems to ensure the long-term support and integration of Ukrainians, while making progress on their existing commitments to children living in poverty.