In Europe, Ukraine is exceptional, with the largest number of children (estimated at least 100,000 by UNHCR) in a large closed and often dysfunctional network of orphanages, boarding schools or facilities for the disabled.
“So before the war, there were tens of thousands of children living in these institutions, it’s huge…” notes Geneviève Colas, coordinator of the “Together Against Human Trafficking” collective for Secours Catholique Caritas France.
Some children are left out because they cannot move due to their disability
A “chaotic” situation
For most of them, the situation today is “chaotic,” confides Halyna Kurylo, a representative of Disability Rights International (DRI), a human rights defense group, in Ukraine. “Many facilities have been evacuated in dangerous ways. Some children are left out because they cannot move due to their disability. Institutions joined the west of the country and merged with others. In the confusion children can get lost”.
On February 25, a “baby home” in Vorzel, which housed 55 children aged 0 to 4, was hit by a Russian bombing raid. “Fortunately, the children and staff were not in the affected building,” said Halyna Postoliuk, Ukrainian director of the NGO Hope and Homes for Children. On that day, the decision to evacuate was not made. Then the intensity of the strikes made it impossible. Finally, on March 9, the 55 children and 26 caregivers were evacuated to the Children’s Hospital in Kyiv and then to the West.
“It’s traumatic for her”
A dozen days ago, a group of children aged 5 to 14 from a facility in Nijine underwent an odyssey of almost 1,000 km from east to west Ukraine to flee the bombs, Marieta, director of the facility, says by phone .
“The Russians are getting closer. The children heard shots, detonations. It’s traumatic for them.” Some relatives picked up children, but seven of them are unable to pick them up. Authorities then decided to evacuate them in a bus with the curtains drawn and transfer them to another facility in Nijni Vorota, April 24 hours away, near the Slovakian border.
“The children saw no destroyed houses, no dead people. Luckily…” says Marieta. “Three days after our departure, the Russians were approaching Nijine. We couldn’t have left the city if we had stayed longer.”
In addition to the danger of battle, these children face other dangers. In Ukraine, “These institutions form a vast 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.
For several years, Ukraine has been the scene of abuses in certain orphanages (daily forced labor in private households, sexual exploitation, etc.). And before the war, charges of illegal adoption or organ trafficking were filed in this poor country, adds Eric Rosenthal. To justify his fears, he cites an example from the Crimean War in 2014: “Children disappeared from orphanages and were taken to Russia”.
In recent weeks “we have learned that children have been transferred from orphanages to neighboring countries such as Romania and Moldova. But there is also a big traffic problem in these two countries! “, he worries.
There are children who will never return to Ukraine, others who will be lost
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 in Lviv and weeps from the bottom of her heart. 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 teenage girl, Maure, started three years ago. She was stunned by the “chaos” of the evacuation of many orphans abroad.
” It’s crazy ! “
According to official data from the end of March, 3,000 foster children were transferred abroad, mainly to Poland, Germany, Italy, Romania, Austria and the Czech Republic. “No government is prepared for such large-scale evacuations,” admits Colleen Holt Thompson.
She also claims to have received “disturbing” calls from someone asking for the list of children from an orphanage her network was trying to evacuate from Mariupol, including those involved in adoptions in the United States. “This person said they could evacuate them to Greece on a private jet… It’s crazy! There are really serious concerns about child trafficking.”
She is also alarmed by the number of children who have been “evacuated to other European countries in families they do not know and who have not been screened. 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 do not know if they are educated or just are familiar,” she says.
“There is still a lot to do”
Rules for the evacuation and surveillance of these groups of children have been issued by the government since March 12, but according to NGOs “much remains to be done”.
According to the NGO Ukrainian Child Rights Network (UCRN), 2,500 children urgently need to be evacuated from combat zones. “In fact, these evacuations happen when fighting is most intense; the children are scared, the older ones try to calm the younger ones,” says Darya Kasyanova, program director of the NGO SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine. “Carers are noticing a developmental setback in these children who eat little and sleep poorly.”
We know human traffickers mingle with the general public
There are also risky situations at the borders. Thomas Hackl from Caritas Romania, who opened a center at the Siret border crossing, said his team recently stopped a man who was trying to bring two young Ukrainian girls to Italy. “We know that the human traffickers mingle with the population and offer a means of transport. There were many signs that led us not to 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.”
Crossing borders and in the countries they pass through, these children are at risk of finding themselves in a car with a stranger and in shelters, at risk of becoming a “petty domestic slave” or being sexually exploited, concludes Genevieve Colas .