Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.
Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.
A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.
Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a transit country on the migration route to Western Europe. More than 67,000 refugees and migrants have arrived and passed through the country since the beginning of 2018. As UNICEF Representative to BiH, I frequently travel to observe the situation and response of UNICEF in the country’s temporary reception centres, where around 6,800 refugees and migrants, including about 1,000 children, are currently accommodated.
UNICEF interventions in these centres focus on four main areas: parenting support through ‘mother and baby corners’ and the provision of early intervention and health care, including immunisation for young children; non-formal and formal education for children, including the provision of education supplies, as well as translator and language assistants; support and protection of unaccompanied minors though ‘youth corners’ where teenagers can spend quality leisure time and participate in sports, arts and music workshops; and finally, procurement of winter clothes and vital supplies for children and families.
On a visit to the Sedra centre in Una Sana Canton last month, I met two girls, who, along with their family of six, have been on the move for almost six years, traveling from the Kurd area in Iraq through Turkey, Greece, Albania, Kosovo and Serbia, before reaching BiH a year ago.
Each stop posed different kinds of experiences and challenges, but like many other families, the main goal was access to education for their children, regardless of the form and despite the difficult and uncertain context. In 2020, COVID-19 added a layer of complexity to the already dire circumstances, causing an interruption of the learning path and leaving many children without education. Currently, only 50% of refugee and migrant children have access to formal education.
Education, be it formal or non-formal, gives a sense of normalcy for children on the move
To strengthen education opportunities for refugee and migrant children, the UNICEF Country Office of BiH began offering the Akelius Digital Language Course in five temporary reception centres in July 2020. Organised through blended learning, Akelius engages children in user-friendly, interactive lessons through computers and tablets. The language course has greatly contributed to the overall progress of children’s educational attainment, and classes are also offered to parents.
Education, be it formal or non-formal, gives a sense of normalcy for children on the move. Learning together creates new bonds between children, teachers and friends. In addition to the development of communication skills, language learning enables children to better communicate about their culture and heritage, thereby fostering integration and inclusion in society and ultimately providing the basis for a better future.
Despite all the adversities faced back home and during their perilous journey, children on the move are eager to explore and learn. Like all other children, they have the right to have access to education and UNICEF is supporting them to exercise this right.
In cooperation with the BiH Ministries of Education, 800 refugee and migrant children in BiH have been enrolled in public schools since February 2019, while more than 3,000 children were reached with non-formal education activities, such as the language learning courses.
Language and education should not be barriers
Many of the activities have been generously supported by the European Union, through the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA II) Special Measures to Support the Response to the Refugee and Migrant Situation and through the Directorate-General for Neighborhoud and Enlargement Negotiations.
However, increased support is required to meet various needs related to unsolved legal statuses, limited reception capacities, frequent displacement of families and children from one centre to another and the limited resources of local government and service providers.
In collaboration with the Ministries of Education and partners, UNICEF’s focus over the coming years will be on training teachers and staff on blended learning and inclusive education; the provision of cultural mediators, teaching materials, equipment and supplies; and support for the enrolment of children in public schools. The aim is to assist the local government in extending existing services in education, health and child protection and integrate refugee and migrant children.
Language and education should not be barriers to the integration and inclusion of refugee and migrant children in society. It’s important that no one is left behind, and education opportunities can serve to boost not only communication, language and other critical skills but also courage, resilience and optimism.