Stranded or displaced by the bombings, during sometimes poorly monitored initiatives and relocated to countries across trafficker-ridden border areas, the tens of thousands of children housed in facilities in Ukraine whose lives were precarious before the war find themselves in a “chaotic state “ 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.
“Before the war, there were tens of thousands of children living in these facilities, it’s huge…” notes Geneviève Colas, coordinator of the “Together Against Human Trafficking” collective for Secours Catholique Caritas France.
For most of them, the situation today is “chaotic,” Halyna Kurylo, a representative of the human rights group Disability Rights International (DRI) in Ukraine, told AFP. “Many facilities have been evacuated arbitrarily; some children are left out because they cannot move because of their disability. Facilities have joined the west of the country and merged with others, places must be overcrowded… In the confusion, children can get lost “.
On February 25, a “baby home” (children from 0 to 4 years old) that housed 55 children in Vorzel was hit by a Russian bombing raid. “Fortunately, the children and staff were not in the affected building,” said Halyna Postoliuk, Ukraine director of the NGO Hope and Homes for Children.
The decision to evacuate was not made that day. 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.
For a group of children aged 5 to 14 from a facility in Nijine, it is an odyssey of almost 1,000 km from east to west Ukraine undertaken a dozen days ago to flee the bombs, says Marieta, the director, on the phone (who didn’t want to give her last name) of the facility.
– 1,000 km by bus –
This center takes in children whose families are unable to care for them due to poverty, alcoholism or drug problems.
“The Russians started to approach; the children heard shots, detonations. It’s traumatic for them…”. Some relatives pick up the children, but seven of them are unable to pick them up due to access problems. The authorities decide to evacuate them in a bus with the curtains drawn and to consolidate them at another facility in Nijni Vorota, 24 hours away by bus, near the Slovakian border.
“The children didn’t see any destroyed houses, no dead people; fortunately…” says Marieta. “Three days after we left, the Russians were approaching Nijine. We could not 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, DRI’s founder and chief executive officer.
Ukraine has been a cause of concern for years and has been the scene of ill-treatment in certain orphanages (daily forced labor in private households to do housework, sexual exploitation, etc.).
Before the war, allegations of human trafficking for illegal adoption or organ trafficking surfaced in this poor country, adds Mr. Rosenthal.
To justify his fears, he cites the example of 2014 during the Crimean war: “Children disappeared from orphanages and were taken to Russia. Others were taken to Ukraine without identification”.
In the last few weeks “we have learned that children are being transferred from orphanages to neighboring countries such as Romania and Moldova, but there is also a big problem of human trafficking in these two countries!” he.
Around 70,000 children in homes are living in areas that have been or have been under shelling since the Russian invasion began on February 24, according to the Ukrainian Child Rights Network (UCRN).
About 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.
– “It’s crazy !” –
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, gathered in Lviv, western Ukraine, sends a heartfelt cry to AFP.
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.
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.
“No government is prepared for such large-scale evacuations,” admits Ms. Thompson. “But my concern grew when I received calls from administration officials asking if we had the names and ages of children who traveled to Lviv by bus or train and for whom they had no identification documents, nor their companions … “.
She also claims to have received “disturbing” calls from someone asking for the list of children from an orphanage her network was attempting to evacuate from Mariupol, including children affected by adoptions in the United States. “This person said they could evacuate these children to Greece on a private jet…that’s crazy! There are really serious concerns about child trafficking.”
She is also alarmed by the number of children who are “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 we do not know if they are trained or just familiar,” she says.
Maure (who has just turned 18) was placed in an orphanage at the age of 4 and experienced a traumatic evacuation from her orphanage in Donetsk in 2014 during the Crimean War when she was 10 years old. During the war, after the Russian invasion broke out, she was again evacuated to another orphanage in Lviv – and to her bunker when the sirens sounded – but was not allowed to stay with Mrs. Thompson. “The head of the institution wants to evacuate him with the other children in Austria…” she is touched.
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.
2,500 children need urgent evacuation from combat zones, according to UCRN. “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.”
– “House Against Sex” –
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 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 elsewhere… There are many stories like that around here”.
Crossing borders and in transit countries, these children are at risk of finding themselves in a car with a stranger, and also housing, with the risk of becoming “a little domestic slave” or being sexually exploited, Ms Colas points out.
From the beginning of the war, Caritas collected testimonies from people passing through Poland who were offered “shelter against sexual exploitation + house against sex +”.
Reached by AFP on the Ukraine-Moldova border, Yuri Tsitrinbaum from the NGO IsraAID, which has been providing aid there since late February, explains that the situation in the first three weeks of the war had been “chaotic” at the border point Palanca because of the “very large number of people crossing”. The situation has “calmed down”, but “there are increasing concerns (…) about human trafficking”.
In Nizhny Vorota, Marieta hopes that the situation will remain calm and has no intention of leaving Ukraine for the time being. “Our country means a lot to us.”
When asked what she will do with the children when Russian troops approach her city of refuge, she says: “It’s better not to think about it.”