Diana Šmídová on how Czechia is helping its 130,000 Ukrainian child refugees
A significant percentage of the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have fled to Czechia since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine are children. The nature of the conflict means that some of them arrive into the country completely unaccompanied by adults, or by just a part of their extended family. To find out what the government is doing to address the needs of this especially vulnerable group I spoke to Diana Šmídová, the secretary of the Committee on the Rights of the Child at the Office of Government.
“In Czechia, the number of Ukrainian child refugees lies at around 130,000. We will have more precise numbers after the re-registration process is over, meaning probably around April. In terms of unaccompanied minors, meaning children who arrived unaccompanied by any person at all, there are around 200.
“Then there are 30,000 children who arrived in this country accompanied by at least one adult, but not by their parents. By this I mean that they were accompanied by either their grandparents, other relatives, or friends.
“It is important to state that all of these children will be contacted again by the child protection authorities and their situation will be reviewed. They will be provided with all of the information and support that they need. They will receive language lessons, education and housing, whatever their needs are.”
How do you process these children when they arrive into the country?
“In the beginning, the process was done in coordination with regional refugee assistance centres, where all relevant actors where present. That means immigration representatives from the Ministry of Interior and child protection authorities who would take care of unaccompanied minors or children in general. Most of the incoming child refugees were accompanied by their mothers and we always have to take the whole situation of the family and their needs into account.”
It must have all happened so fast. Was the process the same across the whole of the EU and did Czechia take inspiration from other countries or vice-versa in this regard?
“We needed to take care of the basic needs of the coming refugees, but now we are also entering a second phase of adaptation and integration of these people.”
“It is true that this situation was unprecedented for everybody. There is of course close cooperation among member states on the EU level, but it was something new for all of us and it all happened really fast.
“We had to set up coordination centres and coordination intervention mechanisms in a really fast paced environment. There were ways in which we got inspired by similar actions abroad. However, I think that it was mostly in cooperation with other member states and closed discussions on what is going on in this fast changing environment that was here in the beginning.
“I also think that it is really important to note that the first phase was based around crisis intervention. We needed to take care of the basic needs of the coming refugees, but now we are also entering a second phase of adaptation and integration of these people.
“This is also why the Government Commissioner for Human Rights Klára Šimáčková Laurenčíková has been appointed as the national coordinator for the adaptation and integration of Ukrainian war refugees. It’s so that we can meet the more complex needs of refugees and all of the vulnerable groups in particular.”
So what exactly are your plans to make their life here better?
“Among the many challenges that we see, the main one is the language barrier. We therefore need to make sure that Czech lessons are available and free for every refugee coming in from Ukraine.
“Also, that they have time and space for them. That means that mothers of young children, for example, need to have babysitting organised, so that they can attend these lessons, communicate and get engaged in the labour market in the future.
“Another big challenge for us is the adolescent refugee group, those who are between 15 and 18, because only a half of them attend high school.”
“We also see big changes in the housing situation. Housing capacities are low in Czechia and we have numbers indicating that a quarter of the refugees are living in crisis emergency housing such as shelters and hostels, so we need to make sure to support them in order that they can move into more stable housing because stable housing is the basis for success in other areas of life such as work and education.
“Another big challenge for us is the adolescent refugee group, those who are between 15 and 18, because only a half of them attend high school. We need to motivate them to attend school and strengthen informal education so that they can better integrate into Czech society, improve in the local language and make good relationships.”
Those sound like very reasonable plans, but explain to me how this process of realising them actually works. Do these ideas then get sent on to individual ministries which subsequently work out how to do it, or what happens?
“The main tool is interdisciplinary cooperation. We have many commissions, committees and expert groups that get into the real nitty gritty of the problems, discussing the practicalities. They are always made up of the relevant stakeholders, meaning state organisations, relevant ministries as well as NGOs, etc.
“To give an example, the Government Commissioner for Human Rights would establish a strategic commission that is at the Ministry of Social Affairs. They would talk a lot about how to really deal with the complex issues a family faces, ranging from housing, social welfare, child protection and all that together because we can’t really solve any one problem separately.
“I am the secretary of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, so that would also include us discussing topics from the perspective of children’s rights. And, I am also the secretary of the Committee on the Rights of Foreigners, where it is of course necessary to think not just about Ukrainians but about foreigners in general.”
You mentioned NGOs, organisations that are not part of the state but nevertheless very important during this crisis, raising billions of crowns for the effort over the past year and many of them are practically coordinating things on the ground. So tell me, how does cooperation between the state and the NGOs work exactly and how relevant are they in this process?
“They are hugely important in the whole process of support and intervention. As I mentioned before, they participate in all of our groups and we are happy that we have close cooperation with them so that we can really discuss the situation on their ground and take their experiences and their information to the central level.
“That is a priority for the commissioner – to have the communication from the ground, from the regions, to the central governance and vice versa. It is also necessary to highlight that the Commissioner for Human Rights was also appointed the national coordinator for refugees and will therefore coordinate the 13 regional coordinators in each region, so that the system can function well and that every refugee has access to all services they need.”
Before assuming the position of Government Commissioner for Human Rights last year, Mrs Šimáčková Laurenčíková, herself worked in the NGO sector. Things must have obviously changed quite a lot simply given the circumstances that have arisen over the past year, but I am especially asking about her leadership?
“I feel that it’s necessary to say that we knew each other already before because I have been working at the Office of Government already for five years being the secretary of the Committee on the Rights of the Child [the current commissioner specialised in child education before assuming her current role].
“She was actually the chair of the committee, so we cooperated very closely with her. I therefore knew already before that she was really ambitious and goal driven which can be challenging sometimes, but you can also see the results. I know her priorities, I know her close relationships with all of the actors, so I only have words of praise for her really.”
Nobody can of course predict the end of the war in Ukraine, but, even if it were to end tomorrow, the problems associated with the refugee crisis won’t disappear overnight. How much time do you think you need to implement all of the measures and integrate these people into society?
“Yes, human rights in general are a never-ending process. We are always strengthening the relevant systems and the support that we provide. Human rights are a goal that we want to achieve. When it comes to the subject of temporary protection – it is of course ‘temporary’. It can only be active for three years.
“That’s why now, one year into the crisis, we need to start thinking about a stable system, about providing refugees with options to choose from in order to have a stable life, whether it be going back to Ukraine or staying here in Czechia.”
Aside from Ukrainians your department also obviously helps other people, you already mentioned foreigners in general. What other groups are currently most in focus? I am also asking because the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic recently criticized the country’s slow progress in addressing discrimination against the Roma.
“Yes, it is true that some of the Roma refugees can face some forms of discrimination. The rights of the Roma and other minorities, their protection, is a subject of focus at one of the departments of the commissioner.
“Also, the government recently appointed a commissioner focused specifically on the Roma minority [Lucie Fuková was appointed into this newly created position in December 2022]. Among the other topics and groups that we deal with at the government within the competencies of the government commissioner for human rights are persons with disabilities, the support of NGOs and one division focused on gender equality, which handles things such as gender based violence and the promotion of the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.”
How did you get into human rights?
“I studied law in Prague and the Human Rights at the University of Cork in Ireland.”
Over the course of your lifetime and of course the time that you have worked in the area of human rights at the Office of Government, have you noticed any changes in how Czechs approach and understand the topic of human rights?
“I must admit that in Czechia we don’t understand human rights in general.”
“I must admit that in Czechia we don’t understand human rights in general. We don’t understand the practicalities, what they are good for.
"I think that the main reason behind this is probably that we don’t teach it at schools. We don’t teach children to discuss and think critically about all kinds of issues, that the solution is not always black and white and that cases need to be taken on an individual basis. That is a big topic when it comes to children’s rights – to make sure that children really understand what their rights are. That they understand what they can do if someone violates their rights and to whom they can turn to.
“Hopefully we will soon set up the position of a children’s ombudsman which would help a lot with systemic issues.”
“Hopefully we will soon set up the position of a children’s ombudsman which would help a lot with systemic issues. Unfortunately, we can’t accept individual complaints at the Office of Government, but the ombudsman would.”
Do we know when this position of a children’s ombudsman will be set up?
“The legislation should be sent to the government during the summer. So we hope for the best.”
And, on the point of children not being sufficiently educated about human rights, are there plans to introduce this type of education into schools?
“We are discussing it on an interdisciplinary basis. The school curriculum is set to undergo a big reform, so we will make sure that children’s rights and the modern skills that they need are prioritised over theory and aspects that are perhaps not so useful for children in modern practical life.”
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