Bratislava’s transition from emergency to integration

26 September 2023

All the people interviewed for this article participated in the mutual learning organised recently in Bratislava with several European cities. The event is the result of the partnership between UNICEF and Eurocities, and aimed at facilitating the sharing of experiences between cities on the inclusion of refugee children and the transition from emergency response to long-term integration strategies.

Municipalities have been providing children and women from Ukraine with access to essential services since the war in Ukraine escalated 18 months ago, leading to millions of people seeking safety across Europe and beyond. Thanks to solidarity and the Temporary Protection Directive, assistance for Ukrainian refugees across Europe has been outstanding.

Since early 2022, Bratislava has taken in 34,865 refugees, representing 7% of the city’s population, including more than 10,100 children. As a result, the share of migrants and refugees increased from 8% in 2020 to 14% in 2022.

However, the new challenge for cities like Bratislava is to transition from emergency response to long-term integration strategy.

“More than ever, the local level needs support – including financial support – to transform the emergency response into long-term strategic approaches without compromising essential services to refugee children,” says André Sobczak, Eurocities’ Secretary General.

From emergency responses to long-term integration strategies

Bratislava has set up local coordination structures to support the inclusion of refugees. It uses data collection and analyses to develop a strategic approach for including people with foreign backgrounds at the local level.

Miroslava Hapalova, Programme Specialist at the Refugee Response Office established by UNICEF in Bratislava, coordinates services established by UNICEF across the city, including health, education and child protection, social protection and social and behavioural change.

“The immediate emergency response was very effective,” says Hapalova. “As the war in Ukraine continues, and children and their families face long-term displacement, we must focus on long-term inclusion. Cities had limited capacities to integrate people with foreign backgrounds. UNICEF is here to continue our support for refugees and all vulnerable children and families.”

The education and healthcare systems in the Slovak Republic were already under pressure before the outbreak of the war, lacking spaces in schools, experiencing challenges in inclusiveness, support with language acquisition or psychosocial support to deal with distress and other mental health problems.

Bratislava established five Play and Learning Hubs with the support of UNICEF to facilitate the enrolment of Ukrainian children in kindergartens. The hubs provide a wide range of services that cater to young children’s needs, including care, play, learning and peer interaction.

Support is diminishing as the war continues unabated with no end in sight. Marková Katarína, head manager of the Assistance Centre for Ukrainian people in Bratislava, remembers her parents’ generation trying to speak Russian, a language they learned when they were young, to help Ukrainians already living in Slovakia. “But now, voices increasingly say the state supports Ukrainians more than Slovaks. However, I would say most people are still supportive, but we also need to help other groups.”

It all starts with data gathering

Although Bratislava is a vast city, it needs specific funding as the needs of Ukrainian refugees differ from those of other groups.

UNICEF supports the local level to develop coordination structures with different actors. Thanks to this cooperation, municipalities can overcome the lack of data about the number of refugees, their location and needs and the barriers they face in accessing different services.

Hapalova states that the number of Ukrainians currently in the Slovak Republic is fluid given the movement of populations, and some of them may have left to either return to Ukraine or continue the journey heading further.

That’s why Bratislava is now collecting data from the administration and services, mapping the highest gaps and the needs of the refugee population. “This year, UNICEF will assist municipalities with the support of the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture – with the development of a long-term strategy for including refugees, and other vulnerable groups,” says Hapalova.

The creation of the strategy will begin in September with a participatory process that includes the Ukrainian population. Until the end of this year, UNICEF, Bratislava and other local stakeholders working on the field will elaborate the strategy that will shape the actions of the municipality in different sectors– education, social services, healthcare coverage and other areas in the inclusion of Ukrainians and also other vulnerable populations with foreign backgrounds.

Play and Learning Hub

The role of UNICEF and its partners is to support the institutions that gather data, give the administration recommendations and facilitate the participatory planning process. At the same time, the city council will launch the official and final version.

How to support children

All children need to be supported by strong communities and services at the local level. The challenge to receive such support is significantly more salient for refugee and migrant children who suddenly find themselves in situations and in localities where their carers might lack resources to provide for them.

In addition, they lack knowledge of the host country’s language and are at risk of exclusion from necessary services (education, health, social protection, etc.), discrimination and isolation. Broad and relevant support to children is a sustainable investment that will positively impact their life paths and position in societies, whether they remain in their host countries or return to their places of origin.

Experiencing war is deeply distressing for children, putting their mental health and well-being at risk. Particular focus has been on addressing children’s needs through mental health and psychosocial support, inclusive education and health care.

UNICEF supports community-based outreach services provided through NGOs. “In Bratislava, there is a centre for pedagogical and psychological counselling that responds quickly, employing five Ukrainian child psychologists to support them in their own language,” says Hapalova.

“We were lucky enough to be partners with UNICEF,” says Katarína, “They provide us with professional advice and support regarding activities in terms of integration and inclusion of refugee children.” For example, Bratislava learned about the importance of including Slovak language lessons so kids can enrol in school as soon as possible.

“We try to work with all age groups, but children are a focus for us,” she adds.

“Thanks to the partnership with UNICEF, Bratislava has a diverse support programme that includes language courses for children and youth or support for children in our Leisure Centres,” said Matúš Vallo, mayor of Bratislava. “Children are always the greatest victims of war, and that is why I am glad that we, together with our colleagues and UNICEF, have a programme that can be shared with other European cities”.”

The origins – the one-stop shop

Despite European cities’ efforts, it seems complicated to establish when to shift from the first emergency to long-term inclusion. Hapalova states, “we cannot separate it because it happens in parallel. In the last two weeks, more people have come to Bratislava, so considering completely closing the current services to move towards an integration centre is premature.”

The assistance centre started in April 2022, transitioning in only two weeks from a stand in the overcrowded main railway station to a centre about to be demolished that was given for free.

Support and information centre in Bratislava

The large-capacity assistance centre, explains Marková, was established “to give quick answers when coming to Bratislava, meaning that we would just give them basic guidance on how to get accommodation, what are their options in terms of legal stay and what are the places where they should ask for those services, for example, police, social services department and so on.”

Around 300 people visit the centre daily, but at the peak, there were 2,000 persons a day coming in to get necessary information under one roof. Until June 2022, the one-stop-shop could even host people for up to 48 hours. There, NGOs supported by UNICEF and UNHCR operated a Blue Dot with child-friendly spaces,  a job counselling service, and language courses. UNICEF and UNHCR provided cash assistance.

To begin with, newcomers “would register and explain their needs,” adds Markova. “We had partners for legal support, psychosocial support, Ukrainian pedagogues for children, basic food and beverages, the Migration Office on the ground, humanitarian support and medicines.”

All this results from the cooperation between the city council, the national government, international organisations, NGOs and the private sector. The national level is present through the foreign police to issue the temporary protection status, which is done in only 20 minutes.

Due to the reduction of newcomers, Markova explains that services evolved from emergency to assistance, focusing on language courses and community-based activities such as activities for children, painting, cinema and discussions. These services contribute to social cohesion and the integration of migrants since they are organised by Slovak volunteers and open to any resident in the city. Also, the hubs for children are located in different sites throughout the city and welcome every kid regardless of their nationality.

“The transition is going smoothly in Bratislava since we can count on the support of NGOs and the state,” says Markova. “We are introducing activities that help people from Ukraine establish a proper life in the city. We try to transition from providing food and a place to sleep by providing those services.”

Work in progress

“I just would like to ask people not to abandon the Ukrainians because they still need help. Even though the security situation has changed, they are still coming from war zones to our country, and their psychological situation is still complicated,” says Markova.

“Through its partnership with UNICEF, Eurocities is proud to support cities on that journey,” adds Sobczak, “by making sure municipalities connect through learning experiences, exchange good practices, discuss their common challenges and inspire each other.”

UNICEF and Eurocities will host the next in-person event in Brussels from 5-7 December. The training – open to a limited number of city officials – will aim at supporting cities in implementing the Child Guarantee at the local level.


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer