The refugee and migrant crisis is generating so much pain and suffering, yet this is a story of hope and healing.
Nine-year old Bitsaiah was afraid and exhausted by the time she reached Šid, a small town in Serbia, only a few kilometres away from the Croatian border. She was separated from her parents and younger brother who were stranded in Greece. All Bitsaiah wanted was to be with her family.
With approximately 3,000 people entering Serbia every day, and children making up more than a third of all refugees and migrants, separations are rare, yet inevitable. Separated children are at heightened risk of exploitation, abuse and other rights violations and decisions about their welfare have to align with national child protection policies. In most cases, separated families get reunited within a few hours – thanks to the support of social workers and other frontline staff supporting refugees and migrants. In rare cases, when unforeseen circumstances occur, separations demand a more structured response and an appropriate plan for care. UNICEF in Serbia has been working closely with the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Affairs and local Centres for Social Work, who are responsible for children without parental care, to make sure that the best short-term care options, such as emergency foster care, are as available to refugee and migrant children as they are to the local child population.
These efforts are ongoing, and Bitsaiah has already reaped the benefits of such an approach. Her guardian, Saša, decided that emergency foster care nearby the refugee and migrant route was the best option. Bitsaiah’s foster parents relied heavily on google translate for communication and the Šid Centre for Social Work secured a mobile phone and internet connection so that Bitsaiah could speak to her parents every day.
I talked to Bitsaiah’s foster parents who told me that she likes to play and loves the snow, but she missed having children her own age to play with. Most of all she missed her parents and younger brother. Saša suggested Bitsaiah’s foster parents take her to the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in Adaševci, so she could play with other children and speak to them in her own language. Though Bitsaiah was brave and resilient in the face of such adversity, at the same time we knew that swift family reunification was needed to reduce her trauma.
This is a story of hope and has a happy ending. After two weeks, Bitsaiah’s parents and brother finally managed to reach Šid. Although still feeling the bitter cold of the Serbian winter, this time Bitsaiah was able to look with hope to the future, as this family continued their journey to a better tomorrow.
Katlin Zara Brasic is a Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF in Serbia
The refugee and migrant crisis is unprecedented in scale and scope and requires some adaptation of the regular child protection systems. UNICEF Serbia plays a crucial role in supporting the Government of the Republic of Serbia to strengthen the existing child protection system and to help adapt certain areas so that decisions are made in the child’s best interest. UNICEF is working closely with the Government to make sure that all refugee and migrant children travelling through the country are safe, healthy and provided with a warm and secure space for respite and play. This is in line with the Children and Family Support Hub approach being developed together with other international agencies. The aim is to protect and support children in all European countries along the refugee and migrant route.