Interview – 3 December 2018

Unaccompanied children are ‘the most vulnerable’

More educational support is needed for refugee children who are separated from their families, says Vesna Mraković-Jokanović, National Director of SOS Children's Villages Serbia.

Since launching its emergency response for refugees at the height of the 2015 migration crisis, SOS Children’s Villages Serbia has helped 125,000 children, young people and parents.

The organisation works at four refugee reception centres in northern Serbia - Adaševci, Kikinda, Obrenovac and Principovac. Of the nearly 4,000 refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Serbia, at least 10% are unaccompanied children.

“Trafficking and smuggling are the biggest risks for unaccompanied children and of course for adults,” says Vesna Mraković-Jokanović, the National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Serbia. “We provide information and have awareness programmes to inform children and families about these risks.”

In an interview, Ms Mraković-Jokanović looks at the achievements since the SOS refugee response began in 2015, and what more needs to be done in the months to come.

Vesna Mraković-Jokanović is the National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Serbia. Photo: SOS Serbia
 
What are the main contributions of SOS Children’s Villages to supporting the refugee population?

We focus on ensuring that each child is cared for by their parents, or when the parents are not available, then by other family members. This is not always easy. You see cases in the refugee reception centres where the parents are not able to care for their children because they themselves are highly traumatised, or they feel that do not have any power over their lives.

We work with these families to improve their situation, for example, by involving them in activities with their children, or providing educational and vocational training opportunities. There are many other ways we help. For example, we support the refugee children through educational activities so they start to learn the Serbian language and are better prepared for school.

Are there needs that are not being addressed?

Our public schools are not really prepared or equipped for the refugee children. It is normal to have 25 or 30 children in a class in Serbia. This is not a good environment for children who are learning a new system and language. They need very close attention and educational support. Most of the refugee centres are in small communities and it has not been possible in such a short period to increase the capacity of the educational system.

Secondary school is not obligatory in Serbia, which creates a problem for the older children. As a result, we need more educational and vocational support for these older children and younger adults as well. Education and vocational training will help support their integration and give them better opportunities for the future.

How does SOS Children’s Villages distinguish itself from other organisations helping in the refugee shelters?

Quality is the big difference. We use our experience and standards from our other programmes and we apply them to the refugee situation. We use a holistic approach, working with the children and families to address their needs. We provide support for children, young people and families regardless of whether they are locals or refugees. And finally, we provide our staff with expert support and regular training.

The Serbian government plans to take over child- and family-focused services for refugees by the end of 2019. Are the government agencies prepared?

Over the next year, all programmes for refugees are to be transferred to the state. The challenge, at the moment, is that some employees are not trained, especially when it comes to standards for the care and support of children. The state still does not have capacity and they need much more time to invest in education and hiring qualified staff. We are doing capacity-building to help in this transition, but it will be a long and demanding process.

During the winter two years ago there were refugees, including unaccompanied children, living in abandoned buildings and parks in Belgrade. Will conditions be better this winter?

The situation is different than it was two years ago. The government has organised refugee centres with better living conditions. There are people who continue to live on the street, but the numbers are not like they were in 2016-2017 and they have the option to live in the refugee centres.

Children enjoy creative activities [above] and after-school homework support [main photo] at the SOS Children's Villages Child Friendly Space in Principovac, Serbia. Photos by Katerina Ilievska

 

More about our emergency response in Serbia

SOS Children’s Villages Serbia has helped nearly 125,000 children, young people and parents since the start of its refugee emergency response in August 2015.

The organisation currently works in four refugee centres in northern Serbia: Adaševci, Kikinda, Obrenovac and Principovac, providing regular support for around 900 children, young people and adults. The organisation works with partners to ensure the care and protection of children and support for families. Key services include:

  • Child Friendly Spaces (CFSs) offering educational and recreational activities, homework support, language lessons as well as psychological and emotional care for younger children
  • Child protection officers working to prevent neglect, abuse and exploitation. They also help those who have experienced such events to recover
  • Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Youth Corners outfitted with computers and tablets where users can contact their loved ones and friends, plus learn computer and programming skills. The Youth Corners also offer educational, vocational and recreational activities for older children
  • Providing health, nutritional and early child development support through Mother and Baby Corners, where mothers can receive support and feed their babies in a quiet and protected space
  • Training and capacity building for government agencies in the areas of donations for playground, smaller reconstructions, IT equipment, supplies, materials, and hygiene items

SOS Children’s Villages Serbia works with international and local partners, as well as the government, to ensure comprehensive support to children and their families.

Learn more about our work with refugees