Europe must put children first in its response to the conflict in Ukraine.
On February 24, in Kyiv, Halyna (not her real name) woke up to find her mother crying while watching the news on TV. “I understood that the war had begun,” she said, “and my first words were, ‘Will I live until I’m 12?’
Soon Halyna heard rockets overhead and explosions rattling the windows of her home. After hiding in an air raid shelter for six days, her family packed up and moved to an animal shelter in Chernivtsi, western Ukraine, where she shared her story with Save the Children.
This is the living reality for millions of children in Ukraine and millions more fleeing violence in the country. And against this background, the European Forum on the Rights of the Child takes place in Brussels. This is a crucial moment for the European Union to take stock of its efforts to protect children’s rights.
The EU can rightly be proud of many of its initiatives to protect children from Ukraine. The rapid activation of the Temporary Protection Directive has resulted in two million refugee children finding the security and stability they desperately need. The union has mobilized more than 700 million euros for humanitarian aid in Ukraine. But welcome as these measures are, the sheer scale of the crisis has presented governments with enormous challenges.
Traveling to Poland, I saw firsthand the scale of the crisis and the efforts of national authorities and organizations to respond. Municipalities do an incredible job to ensure children have access to education, but they don't have the resources to hire additional teachers, even if they could find them.
I have seen how few language teachers there are who support children from Ukraine to learn Polish and prepare them for school. And these children don't just need language support: many, like Halyna, have horrific memories of the conflict; They need psychological and psychosocial support to integrate into school. This is a challenge across the EU, with countries like Spain taking in 140,000 refugees, half of them children. Enrolling so many children into national education systems requires a concerted effort and significant resources to expand school capacity.
The very fact that children from Ukraine are being protected and that governments are making every effort to provide services is a positive step for the EU. Too often, children who seek safety from outside in Europe encounter violence, discrimination and exclusion. Ukraine's response can serve as a "blueprint" on how to treat all children arriving in Europe with dignity and respect, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pointed out in her recent State of the Union address.
The conflict in Ukraine also affects children across Europe. It has led to rising inflation and contributed to an acute cost of living crisis. In the Netherlands, the cost of groceries has increased by 18.5 percent in the last 11 months. In Spain, 17.1 percent of children live in families who cannot pay their utility bills, mortgages or rent on time due to financial difficulties. The impact is most noticeable on children already living in poverty, with lower-income families facing a terrible choice between food and heating.
The EU must not lose sight of its commitments to combating child poverty in the Union or divert resources from these efforts to the equally important support of refugee children from Ukraine. Part of the answer is to provide additional funds. As in the post-pandemic recovery, these could be borrowed or generated through national contributions. Efforts to fight inflation must be matched with increases in child support and social security benefits to deal with the cost-of-living crisis.
We need your support
Social Europe is one independent publisher and we believe in free content. For this model to be sustainable, however, we depend on the solidarity of our readers. Join Social Europe for less than 5 euros per month and help us produce more articles, podcasts and videos. Many thanks for your support!
At the root of the cost-of-living crisis is the dramatic reduction in supplies of fossil fuels from Russia, on which much of the EU economy relies heavily. It is very important how Europe reacts to this. Unless EU countries rid themselves of their dependency on fossil fuels, they will betray this and future generations of children.
Bear the brunt
After all, the economic shocks caused by the conflict on European soil are being felt far beyond the continent. Over 205 million people in 45 countries face acute food insecurity and 60 million children are acutely malnourished. Fueled by the conflict in Ukraine, soaring food and fuel prices in Somalia and the Sahel are driving increasing numbers of children to starvation, turning a crisis into a disaster. And this while many European governments are cutting aid budgets or redirecting them to support refugees in their countries.
In response, the EU must use its diplomatic and financial clout. Equal priority must be given to negotiating solutions to ease disruptions in food exports and providing additional, flexible means to scale up life-saving services and resilience programs to children most affected by the global food crisis.
In Ukraine, Europe and around the world, children are bearing the brunt of the direct and indirect effects of the conflict. The EU has the means to address these, but sustained political will and long-term commitments are needed to ensure children are equally supported and protected.
Inger Ashing is Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children International, with whom she has been associated for more than 25 years. She has held various national and international roles focused on children's rights, most recently as Director General of the Swedish Agency against Segregation. She is a member of the Ethics Council of the Swedish Migration Board.