Blocked or displaced by the bombs, during sometimes poorly monitored initiatives and relocated to countries across trafficked border areas, the tens of thousands of children housed in institutions in Ukraine are in a “chaotic” situation, NGOs and experts warn.
Ukraine is an exceptional case, with the largest number of children in Europe (estimated at least 100,000 by UNHCR) in a vast closed and often dysfunctional network of orphanages, boarding schools or facilities for the disabled.
So there was” Tens of thousands of children living in these facilities before the war, it’s huge… observes Geneviève Colas, coordinator of the “Together Against Human Trafficking” collective for Secours Catholique Caritas France.
For most of them, the situation is today chaotic ” says Halyna Kurylo, representative of the Human Rights Group (DRI) in Ukraine. “
Many institutions were arbitrarily evacuated; Some children are left out because they cannot move due to their disability. Facilities have joined and merged with others in the west of the country, the places must be overcrowded… In the confusion, children can get lost ».
For a group of children aged 5 to 14 from a facility in Nijine, it was an odyssey of almost 1,000 km from eastern to western Ukraine that they undertook a dozen days ago to escape the bombs, says Marieta Director of the facility, by phone.
This center takes in children whose families are unable to care for them due to poverty, alcoholism or drug problems. ” The Russians were approaching; the children heard shots, detonations. It’s traumatic for her… “. Some relatives come to pick up the children, but for seven of them it is not possible to pick them up due to access problems. The authorities decide to evacuate them in a bus with the curtains drawn and they are in another facility in Nijni Vorota, 24 hours away by bus, near the Slovakian border.
The fights… and the other dangers
In addition to the danger of battle, these children face other dangers. In Ukraine, these institutions constitute “ a huge disorganized system with little control; In the chaos of this war, children are easy prey for criminal organizations warns Eric Rosenthal, founder and CEO of DRI.
Ukraine has been a cause of concern for years and has been the scene of abuse in some orphanages (daily forced labor in private households to do housework, sexual exploitation, etc.). Before the war, allegations of illegal adoption or organ trafficking were brought in this poor country, adds Mr. Rosenthal.
About 70,000 children in care were living in areas that have been or have been under shelling since the Russian invasion began on February 24, according to the NGO network Ukrainian Child Rights Network (UCRN).
Around 31,000 children who still had parents or legal guardians have returned home, but their situation is alarming when these people cannot receive them properly.
The “chaos” of the evacuations
Colleen Holt Thompson, 55, an American from Kentucky and a regular volunteer in Ukraine since 2006 with orphanages through a network of American adoptive parents, joined a heart cry in Lviv, western Ukraine. As the adoptive mother of six Ukrainians, she arrived urgently in Lviv on March 3 to help evacuate orphans and continue her adoption process for a teenager, Maure, started three years ago.
She was stunned by the “chaos” of the evacuation of many orphans abroad. Colleen Holt Thompson claims to have received calls disturbances by a person who asked him for the list of children from an orphanage his network was trying to evacuate from Mariupol, particularly children affected by adoptions in the United States. ” I tell you, there are children who will never return to Ukraine, others who will be lost, and there are currently thousands of children in hotels, camps, in private homes, with people who are not sure if they are educated or just trustworthy “, she lets go.
According to official figures from the end of March, 3,000 foster children were transferred abroad, mainly to Poland, Germany, Italy, Romania, Austria and the Czech Republic.
Rules for the evacuation and surveillance of these groups of children have been issued by the government since March 12, but according to the NGOs, there is still a lot to be done.
There are also risky situations at the borders. Thomas Hackl from Caritas Romania, who has opened a center at the Siret border crossing, testifies that his team recently stopped a man trying to bring two young Ukrainian women to Italy. ” We know that human traffickers mingle with the population and offer a means of transport. There were many signs that we didn’t trust this man: he was too insistent, he wanted to take her to a certain place and not somewhere else… There are many stories like this one ».
From the beginning of the war, Caritas collected testimonies from people who passed through Poland and who “ a shelter against sexual exploitation, “house against sex”.