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Hearing the Voices of Ukrainian Children and Young People

In this short blog, Dr Alicia Heys reflects on her current role in supporting UNICEF’s ‘Hearing the Voices of Ukrainian Children and Young People’ programme in Poland and Bulgaria.

Dr. Alicia Heys
Dr Alicia Heys

On February 24th, 2022, the Russian Federation escalated its conflict in the Donbas region to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As a direct result, current estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] state that approximately 7 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced, with a further 7.2 million Ukrainians having fled to neighbouring countries. This includes approximately 15,000 unaccompanied minors. In addition to these vast numbers of refugees and the increased risk of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation and abuse, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [OCHA] estimates that approximately 1 million children are at risk of being affected by conflict-related mental health issues.

In response to this ongoing crisis, the Europe and Central Asia Regional Office of the United Nations Children’s Fund [UNICEF] initiated the ‘Hearing the Voices of Ukrainian Children and Young People: Child Helplines Responding to the Ukraine Crisis’ programme, to be implemented by Child Helpline International.

This programme had three objectives:

1. To improve and maintain the capacity of child helplines to ensure quality services for young people in need of care and protection, with a particular focus on children affected by the Ukrainian conflict;

2. To raise awareness among the public, with particular focus on Ukrainian children and parents of the existence of child helpline services for children and families; and

3. To ensure the inclusion and amplification of children’s voices and generate evidence to influence policymaking through reliable national and regional data collection, analysis and sharing.

However, a scoping needs assessment revealed that few counsellors working for national child helplines had received training relating to the Ukrainian war. Indeed, most counsellors did not have experience or training regarding humanitarian emergencies as a whole, nor in several of the most pressing issues emerging from conflict, including conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence and trafficking in human beings, especially as this relates to children.

As a Lecturer in Modern Slavery at the Wilberforce Institute, and a specialist in the connection between contemporary slavery and conflict, I am supporting this programme by delivering training to counsellors who work for these helplines in nearby countries. I was in Poland from February 8-10, and in Bulgaria from February 28 to March 1. I conducted extensive research on the links between conflict and human trafficking in my doctoral thesis, and am situating this research within the specific context of the Ukrainian conflict to increase participants’ knowledge and help them identify and respond to risk when they are supporting children through the helplines. This training will help them to better understand some of the issues that Ukrainian children and young people contacting their helpline are most at risk of, as well as to recognise some of their associated indicators

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