A portrait of Ana*, 15, and her mother, Nina*, who fled Ukraine to Romania because of conflict. Photo:Anna Pantelia,Save the Children
Children who have fled Ukraine to live in Europe are struggling with their mental health, with more than one in two children surveyed feeling anxious or worried about their future, according to a new report from Save the Children.
The report, titled ‘This is my life and I don’t want to waste a year of it: The experiences and wellbeing of children fleeing Ukraine’, is based on surveys, focus groups and discussions with over 1,000 refugee children and their caregivers in seven European countries: Finland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Sweden.
The research found that refugee children who attended school were less likely to feel lonely, yet school enrolment rates for children who fled the war in Ukraine remain worryingly low in Europe. Only one-third of children were attending school before the summer holidays and one quarter did not intend to enroll in a local school in the 2022-2023 academic year.
Half of the children interviewed report feeling more anxious since fleeing Ukraine, that figure shoots to 78% for children over the age of 16.
More than half of the children surveyed believed their situation would improve by having friends from their host community (57%), opportunities to play sports or their hobbies (56%), and learning the local language (54%). Boys are significantly more likely than girls to report a longing for friends in their host community (64% compared with 52% respectively).
The report shows language is a clear barrier to making local friends, as Ana*, 15, who fled to Romania from Ukraine, explained:
“I feel a bit uncomfortable here. I don’t have my friends and my classmates. Most of the people my age don’t speak English so I can’t really communicate with them. I have a few, they are Ukrainians that I met here we are quite close.”
Andriy, 13, a refugee from Ukraine who is now living in Lithuania, said: “I attended [a local school] for two weeks, but there were not many teachers who could speak Russian, so I went back to Ukrainian online school [...] There are Lithuanian children who I would like to befriend, [but they didn’t want to talk to me]. I made [Lithuanian friends] in two summer camps, on the football field, and during our football classes.”
Since 24 February, around 7.7 million refugees have fled Ukraine to seek safety in other European countries, 40% are estimated to be children. Many children have witnessed distressing events, being forced to flee their homes and leave loved ones behind. Host country governments have a critical role to play in supporting children so that issues like anxiety and unhappiness do not develop into long-term mental health problems.
Governments have struggled to ensure that children are enrolled in school and countries with the most refugees face the most acute challenges. There are few language teachers to support children from Ukraine to learn their host language, and municipalities often do not have the funding to hire additional educational staff. In Poland, for example, the report found that only 41% of children from Ukraine are enrolled in local schools.
Some parents and caregivers surveyed prefer to use the online learning programme the Ukrainian government had previously developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic because they don’t know how long they will be in their host countries. However, online learning has its limitations and can be unreliable, and children using this option risk missing out on the other benefits of in-person schooling.
Ylva Sperling, Director of Save the Children Europe, says:
“Even with Europe’s warm welcome of families from Ukraine, this report shows many children who have fled to Europe remain anxious and lonely. It’s really concerning that a quarter of the children we surveyed were not intending to, or were unsure about, enrolling in school in their local community. This is especially true since so many indicated that they would like to have friends, play sports and learn the local language. Schools can provide all of this to children.
“We need a renewed sense of urgency from the EU and national governments to ensure that children from Ukraine can fully enjoy their rights to protection, health and education, and truly thrive in their host countries.”
Children and their caregivers want to go home to Ukraine, but this is unlikely to happen any time soon. Therefore, host Government’s need to plan for the long term, so that refugee children have a sense of normalcy and a positive outlook for the future. Governments must redouble efforts to enroll children in schools and address the barriers, which prevent children from attending school, including increasing school capacity and providing language support for children and their caregivers.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity.