UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Novak Djokovic visited a UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in Belgrade and met some of the refugee and migrant children who are passing through the Republic of Serbia on their way to Western Europe.
He was deeply touched by the situation of the children, who make up almost a third of the refugee and migrant population, most fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“These children have been travelling with their families for days, enduring searing heat as well as wet and cold nights. They are physically exhausted and psychologically traumatized,” Mr. Djokovic said. “The child-friendly spaces that UNICEF has set up for them gives them a safe place to rest, play and receive psychosocial support by qualified professionals.”
Since the beginning of the year, 129,947 people have been registered in Serbia as asylum applicants. According to estimates from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, at least the same number have passed through Serbia without registering.
UNICEF has established two child friendly spaces, equipped with educational materials and toys; one in the town of Presevo close to the order with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the second in the capital city Belgrade. In each location, up to 50 children at a time can play and receive psychosocial support.
Almost 1,100 children, most between 6 and 10 years old, have so far rested and played in these safe spaces. Not only do the children benefit, but this also brings much needed relief to their parents, who have travelled long distances with their children, and appreciate the care they receive.
In response to the current crisis, UNICEF Serbia has hired additional social workers in Presevo and Belgrade who are helping to identify the most vulnerable children and families and give them appropriate support. They are also helping to develop standard procedures for what to do when an unaccompanied child is identified.
Two mother and baby corners have been organized in Presevo and Belgrade where lactating mothers can continue to breastfeed and receive information on breastfeeding. Some 200 infant and young children will also receive daily feeding in these locations, and their nutritional status will be monitored.
To aid the physical protection of the migrants and refuges, UNICEF and partners are giving out information on landmines, as many families are now travelling through Croatia, which still has landmines and unexploded ordinance left over from the recent conflicts.
“Refugee and migrant children must be adequately protected in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” said Mr. Djokovic. “These, and many other refugee and migrant children in Europe are living in inadequate conditions. Many are sleeping out in the open air. And as winter approaches, the health of young children is especially at risk.”
He added: “It is clear that the best way to help these desperate children is with a coordinated action to address the root causes of this huge movement – through more vigorous diplomatic efforts to end conflicts, and by providing development and humanitarian support in the countries of origin.”