Tens of thousands of children stranded or displaced by bombs, transported to countries through sometimes poorly supervised initiatives and across border regions haunted by human traffickers, tens of thousands of children in institutions in Ukraine, whose lives were precarious before the war They live in a “chaotic” situation, warned NGOs and experts.
Ukraine is an exception, with Europe’s largest number of children (estimated at least 100,000 by UNHCR) placed in a vast, closed and often dysfunctional network of orphanages, boarding schools or institutions for the disabled.
So there were “tens of thousands of children living in these institutions before the war, it’s huge…”, notes Genevieve Colas, coordinator of the “Together Against Human Trafficking” group for Secours Catholique Caritas France.
Most of them, the situation today is “chaotic”, Helena Corillo, representative of the International Human Rights Organization (DRI) in Ukraine, told AFP. “Many institutions have been randomly vacated, and some children have been excluded because they cannot move due to their disability. Institutions have joined in the west of the country and merged with other institutions, and places must be overcrowded… In the event of confusion, children can get lost.”
On February 25, the “Children’s House” (children from 0 to 4 years old) receiving 55 children in Forzel was subjected to Russian bombing. “Fortunately, children and staff were not in the damaged building,” said Halina Postolyuk, director of the Ukraine NGO “Hope and Homes for Children”.
No eviction decision was made that day. Then the severity of the blows made it impossible. Finally, on March 9, 55 children and 26 supervisors were taken to the Children’s Hospital in Kyiv, and then to the West.
For a group of 5- to 14-year-olds from an institution in Nizhin, the journey is an epic nearly 1,000 kilometer, from eastern to western Ukraine, undertaken ten days ago to escape the bombs, Marietta says by phone. , the director of the foundation (who did not wish to mention her last name).
– 1,000 km by bus –
This center receives children whose families cannot take care of them due to poverty, alcoholism or drug problems.
“The Russians started getting close, and the kids heard shots and explosions. It’s shocking for them…”. Some relatives pick up the children, but for seven of them it is impossible to pick them up due to access problems. The authorities decided to evacuate them in a bus with clogged curtains and regroup them with another institution in Nizhny Vorota, 24 hours away by bus, near the Slovak border.
“The children did not see houses destroyed, people killed; fortunately …,” Marietta tells. “Three days after we left, the Russians approached Negin. We could not have left the city if we had stayed longer.”
Besides the danger of fighting, there are other dangers to these children.
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 the Direct Hacking Initiative.
Ukraine has been a concern for years and has been the scene of abuse in some orphanages (daily forced labor in private homes to do household chores, sexual exploitation, etc.).
Before the war, charges of illegal adoption or organ trafficking arose in this poor country, adds Mr. Rosenthal.
To justify his fears, he cites the example of 2014, during the war in Crimea: “Children disappeared from orphanages and were brought to Russia. Others were taken into Ukraine without revealing their identity.”
In recent weeks, “We have learned that children are taken from orphanages to neighboring countries such as Romania and Moldova; but there is also a big problem with trafficking in these two countries!”
According to the NGO network “Ukrainian Children’s Rights Network” (UCRN), about 70,000 children who have been institutionalized live in areas that have come under fire or have come under fire since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24.
About 31,000 children who still have parents or legal representatives have returned home, but their situation is alarming if these people cannot receive them properly.
– “This is madness !” –
Lviv (Western Ukraine), 55-year-old Coleen Holt Thompson, an American from Kentucky and a regular volunteer in Ukraine since 2006 with orphanages through a network of American adoptive parents, joined AFP with a cry from the heart.
An adoptive mother of six Ukrainians, she urgently arrived in Lviv on March 3 to help evacuate orphans and continue the adoption procedure for a teenage girl, Moore, which began three years ago.
She was stunned by the “chaos” of evacuating many orphans abroad.
According to official figures released at the end of March, 3,000 adopted children were taken abroad, most of them to Poland, Germany, Italy, Romania, Austria and the Czech Republic.
“No government is prepared for such a large-scale evacuation,” admits Thompson. “But my fears increased when I received calls from people in the departments asking us if we had the names and ages of children who were traveling to Lviv by bus or train and who had no record of their identity or their companions … “.
It also claims to have received “disturbing” calls from someone asking for a list of children from an orphanage whose network was trying to evacuate from Mariupol, including children affected by adoption in the United States. “This guy was saying they could get these kids to Greece via a private plane… That’s crazy! There are really serious concerns about child trafficking.”
She is also concerned about the number of children who have been evacuated “to other European countries in families they do not know and 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 and private homes, with people we don’t know if they have been trained or simply trusted.”
Moore (who turned 18) was placed in an orphanage at the age of four, and already in 2014 during the Crimean War she suffered a painful eviction from her orphanage in Donetsk when she was 10. In the wake of the outbreak of the Russian invasion, she was evacuated again during the war to Lviv to another orphanage – and her hideout when the sirens sounded – but was not allowed to stay with Mrs. Thompson. “The director of the institution wants to evacuate him with the other children in Austria …,” she was quoted.
Since March 12, the government has imposed rules for evacuating and monitoring these groups of children, but much remains to be done, according to the NGOs.
According to UCRN, there are 2,500 children who urgently need to be evacuated from combat zones. “In reality, these evacuations take place when the fighting intensifies; children are terrified, and the elderly are trying to reassure the young,” says Daria Kasyanova, director of programs at Children’s Villages Ukraine, the NGO SOS.
“Supervisors are noticing a setback in the growth of these children who eat little and sleep poorly,” he added.
– ‘House against sex’ –
Dangerous situations are also at the border.
Thomas Huckle, of Caritas Romania, who opened a post at the Siret border point, testifies that his team recently stopped a man who was trying to take two Ukrainian young women to Italy.
“We know that traffickers mix with the population, provide transportation. There were many signs that led us to distrust this man: he insisted a lot, wanted to take them to a certain place and not to another … There are many stories like this here” .
When crossing borders and in the countries they cross through, these children run the risk of finding themselves in a car with a stranger, as well as the risk of accommodation, with the risk of becoming “little domestic slaves” or being sexually exploited, Ms Colas asserts.
Since the beginning of the war, Caritas has collected testimonies from people passing through Poland who were offered a “shelter against sexual exploitation + a sex home +”.
Yuri Zytternbaum of the NGO IsraelAID, which has been providing assistance there since the end of February, arrived by AFP on the border between Ukraine and Moldova, explains that the first three weeks of the war, the situation was “chaotic” at the border point Palanca due to “a number of Too many people crossing.” The situation has “calmed down” but “there are more and more concerns (…) on the issue of human trafficking”.
In Nizhny Furuta, Marietta hopes the situation remains calm and has no intention of leaving Ukraine for the time being. “Our country means a lot to us.”
And when asked what she would do with the children if the Russian troops approached her city, she replied: “It is better not to think about it.”