Media Centre - 20th June 2022

On World Refugee Day, Ukraine children’s education and mental health must be a priority

A classroom with children in Modova

As the Ukraine crisis enters its fourth month, with more than six million refugees now having been forced to flee across its borders, governments must prioritise the “lifeline” of regular schooling for Ukrainian refugee children, according to charity for girls’ equality Plan International Australia.

Psychosocial support for refugee children and their caregivers must also be scaled up urgently to prevent a long-term mental health crisis, the child rights and humanitarian NGO has warned today on World Refugee Day, a day designed by the United Nations to draw attention to and honour refugees around the world.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, one-third of Ukrainians have been forced from their homes: the largest human displacement crisis in the world today. Of those who have fled the country,

it is estimated that 90 per cent are women and children, while most men aged 18–60 are required to stay behind under martial law. The war has disrupted the education of all 7.5 million children in the country, with all teaching immediately suspended for two weeks. Since then, more than 1,800 schools have been damaged or destroyed by shelling and bombing, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science.

Millions of Ukrainian children have fled the country in search of safety while others have settled in other parts of Ukraine further away from active fighting. A growing proportion have witnessed death or widespread destruction and lived through bombings and missile strikes. Nearly all have had their lives uprooted, becoming separated from family, friends and classmates.

Impressively, the Ukrainian Ministry of Education has continued to operate and made online lessons available for all age groups within a fortnight, wherever they are – inside or outside Ukraine. But online lessons, particularly for primary aged children, are limited in scope and cannot replace the important social and emotional support that face-to-face classes with a well-prepared teacher provides.

“One major lesson we all learned from the global pandemic is the importance of school as a lifeline for our children. Several international studies have underlined the simple fact that taking kids out of school affects not only their learning but their mental health, their socialisation and even their likelihood to do physical exercise. Education is necessary for children to grow and prosper,” said Plan International Australia CEO Susanne Legena.

“School is about so much more than grades, it can be a lifeline for children in a time of crisis and for those forced to flee their homes due to war it can be an important constant in their new lives and an important way to start building new friendships and confidence in a new country.”

For children of Ukrainian refugees, the support of schools across Poland, Romania and other neighbouring countries has been critical, but of equal importance is the fact that they receive the quality education that they have a right to.

Getting refugee children back in school

In Poland – which has so far offered a home to more Ukrainian refugees than any other country – Plan International is working with local partners to get refugee children back into school as quickly as possible.

Although the Polish government has guaranteed that all Ukrainian children in Poland have the right to continue their education, the scale and speed of new arrivals of school-aged children is something no country has ever faced before.

Of the 2.8 million Ukrainian refugees who have crossed into Poland, at least half are under the age of 18, and this is not only putting the system under pressure but it is exposing the teachers to situations that they are simply not prepared for.

Plan International has been supporting schools since day one of the conflict, helping teachers to talk to pupils about the war and how to understand what’s going on. Now, we’re working to help schools cope with the challenges and unprecedented scale of new arrivals.

However, more funding is needed critically and urgently to enrol all school-aged children who have entered the country into the Polish education system. The most urgent and immediate needs are to support Polish headteachers and teachers to expand their classes and equip them with the skills needed to teach Ukrainian pupils, including children who have potentially experienced traumatic events. More support is also needed to recruit additional Ukraine teachers and psychosocial support workers.

In Romania, Plan International has been working with local organisations to set up psychosocial support programmes and activities to provide refugee children from Ukraine with a safe environment and greater sense of normality.

These include mobile psychosocial support units and support getting back to school – a critical part of adjusting to life in a new country as a child – as well as referral services to specialised care and support.

“The conflict in Ukraine has disrupted the education of a whole generation of children. Getting pupils back into school is critical to provide a sense of normality and safety, as they start to rebuild their lives in a new country,” said Plan International Australia Disaster Response Team head of mission Dario Lopez, who was deployed to the Romania border in April.

“In conflict and other humanitarian emergencies, emotional needs are often one of the least recognised and reported health issues. Young people will be bearing these invisible wounds long after they reach a place of safety.

“Our team are coming back with accounts of mothers in Romania and Moldova who say their children have stopped speaking. Some talk only in their sleep. Others have lost interest in normal childhood activities like playing and singing.

“These are natural reactions to an abnormal situation. But if left unattended, they can have severe long-term consequences, including depression, anxiety, unresolved grief and developmental delays, stopping children from rebuilding their lives and fulfilling their potential.

“Children who have experienced traumatic events often show signs of feeling sad or distressed. In Romania I spoke to an eight-year-old boy called Alexander at the border at Sucheba,” said Mr Lopez.

“He was telling me how much he hated Russians and how we wanted to kill them. And that gives you an idea of the mental health challenges you have with people running away from war and that teachers are dealing with the level of distress and fear and anger and they are not properly prepared to respond to.”

“It’s critical that we don’t neglect the emotional toll conflict takes on children and their families, and that they receive psychological first aid and referred for support from the very beginning.”

Further, supporting schools with adequately trained teachers and psycho-social support workers leads to significant emotional and psychological benefits for these children, he added.

“Education provides a safe environment where children and young people can continue to develop knowledge and skills, socialise with others and access other critical support services such as school meals and healthcare. We also know that girls who are in school are also less likely to be exposed to dangers such as sexual exploitation, trafficking and domestic labour.”

In Moldova, Plan International has supplied thousands of backpacks to help children fleeing conflict in Ukraine return to school.

The kits, which contain essential supplies such as pens, notebooks, coloured pencils and hygiene materials, will help refugee children now living in Moldova to carry on with their studies as they enrol in local schools.

In Romania, as part of the Safe and Inclusive Education for Refugee Children and Adolescents in Romania (SIERCAR), Plan International is distributing tablets so that children that are displaced can continue with online learning. But this is meant only as a stop gap and is not meant to replace in-person learning.

Fears for the next generation

While the war has made things worse, children in Ukraine have had their schooling interrupted for the past several years due to the country’s ongoing conflict with Russia. Christina Cushen, a Plan International Australia youth activist, says she has family in Odesa and she is concerned about the impact that missing out on school is having on them.

“My 10-year-old cousin has been doing online schooling for the past three years,” Cushen says. “I am worried she is going to not only fall behind in learning but also be less likely to form the friendships that are so important at this age and that she will have her future prospects limited because online schooling is not the same as learning in person with a class of your peers. We have no idea how this interrupted learning will affect the next generation.”

Around the world, Plan International works to promote free, equal access to quality education for all children – from early learning to secondary education. We work with children, their families, communities, wider society and governments, and advocate at local and international level so that all children are able to get an education.

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