child refugees
across Europe

Home > Supporting child refugees across Europe

What’s happening in Europe?

Children are fleeing war and disaster in greater numbers than ever before since World War 2. More than a million people, one in five of them children, arrived on the shores of Europe last year, and the number continues to rise.

Abrupt border closures have left thousands of refugee children stranded at transit centres in Greece and other south-eastern European countries, trying to reach family in Europe or countries where they intend to seek asylum, but unable to move.

This winter, there has been a record number of refugee and migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, including an estimated 190 children.

Last year over 30,000 unaccompanied children arrived by sea in Greece and Italy and only eight of these children were transferred to their family in the UK. We are calling on the Home Office to fulfil its commitments to refugee children in Europe.

In Italy and Greece this means establishing and resourcing a system for referrals, with an outreach team, so that the authorities, UN agencies and NGOs can identify and pass on cases of unaccompanied children who are eligible to be in the UK.

Though 80 years separate Harry and Ahmed, their stories have harrowing similarities.

On 20 February 2016, Afghan refugees seek shelter from very cold, wet weather conditions at the Tabanovce reception centre for refugees in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia after being refused entry into Serbia. Hundreds of Afghan refugees, including children and women, are stuck in freezing conditions in Tabanovce in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonian as border changes in the Balkan region create confusion and chaos. UNICEF-branded bags are distributed routinely in Tabanovce to women with small children who need to carry children's items. Photo: Unicef/2016/Georgiev
The plight of these children is neither by their choice nor within their control.

They need protection. They have a right to protection.

Anthony Lake, Unicef Executive Director

Naham from Idlib in Syria, is deeply concerned for the future of her three children Manar (10), Mohammed (12), and Moustafa (15). “We had to leave Syria so that my children could have a life,” she told us. Naham’s youngest son Ahmed was killed by a bomb in Idlib while he was out walking with his aunt. He was four years old.

Before the war, Naham was a physical education teacher at a local school, where her husband was a contractor and plumber. Life was good. They had a nice home and financial savings. It was those savings which helped Naham and her children finally leave Syria after the death of Ahmed.

“In some ways, we were lucky because we had a little money,” said Naham. “The trip is very expensive. There are many people left in Syria who cannot leave because they don’t have the means.” Naham paid the traffickers over $1,300 per adult for a place on the boat. There were 27 people on board including around nine children. The seas were rough and there were three distinct moments when the adults thought the boat would capsize. “People were terrified,” she remembered, “I was not afraid to die, but I was frightened for my children. I couldn’t let them die there.”

Naham and her daughter Manar. Photo: Unicef/2015/Tidey

Naham and her daughter Manar at the border in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

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What is Unicef doing to help refugee children in Europe?

Together with partner organisations we have established child and family support hubs – known as Blue Dot centres because of their distinctive blue dot marking – across Europe to provide help and support to children and families.

Because the situation is changing, the support that we offer is readily adaptable to fit the needs of children and families. The Blue Dot centres provide a range of services, including family reunification, child-friendly spaces, first aid, psychosocial and emotional care, legal counselling, safe spaces for women and children to sleep and outreach social workers.

We’re also active in transit centres and migration routes, including in Libya, providing clean water, sanitation facilities, blankets and clothing for children.

In September 2016, we provided psychosocial support and learning and play activities to around 2,400 children in Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. We also reached 5,600 children with basic supplies and hygiene kits.

On 23 February 2016, refugee and migrant families pass through the Gevgelija transit center on the border with Greece. As border changes in the Balkan region create confusion and chaos, hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq returned to Greece. UNICEF and partners are providing food and drawing books to children in this location. Child and Family Support Hubs, known as “Blue Dots,” provide a safe space for children and their families, vital services, play, protection and counselling in a single location. The Blue Dot hubs in this location were operational as of the end of January 2016. In February, women and children made up nearly 60 per cent of sea arrivals to Europe, compared to 27 per cent in September 2015. Unicef/2016/Georgiev

A Unicef worker speaks with a child at the Blue Dot centre on the border between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece.

What else needs to be done for refugee children?

The response to Europe’s child refugee crisis is challenging. We are working hard to try to reach “invisible” refugee children, who are taking dangerous, illegal routes and facing heightened risks of abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

Unicef is working constantly with governments across Europe to ensure improved conditions for child migrants and refugees. We’re also carrying out important data collection, which analyses the situation of children across Europe so that we know what we need to be providing.