Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression continues to inflict terrible suffering on Ukraine's children.
Geoffrey P. Johnston
Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine is destroying the country’s schools, hospitals and residential neighbourhoods, while simultaneously killing and terrorizing civilians, including children.
The Russian terror campaign has forced millions of innocent women and their children to flee Ukraine and turned the country into a living hell for those who remain.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has traumatized a generation of children, robbing them of any semblance of normalcy, which will almost certainly have negative consequences for their mental health and development.
Worst refugee crisis in the world
Last week, Michael Messenger, President and CEO of World Vision Canada, was in Romania to get a first-hand look at the Ukrainian refugee crisis unfolding in Europe. “I was there for a week,” a jetlagged Messenger said in a telephone interview.
He travelled to a number of transit corridors along the Romania-Ukraine border, including a crossing point at Siret. Messenger, who has been with the Christian humanitarian organization for over 30 years, also made his way to Bucharest, the Romanian capital city, to meet with refugees.
World Vision President & CEO Michael Messenger met with Ukrainian refugees in Romania the week of March 7, 2022.
“We saw families who had made it to the capital and were in temporary accommodation, some of them preparing to go wherever they’re heading next,” Messenger said. He also travelled to a border area to see a World Vison supply convoy depart for Ukraine to deliver aid to hospitals.
Have you ever seen such a rapid exodus of so many refugees in any other conflict or crisis?
“The scope and scale is unprecedented,” replied Messenger. “I’ve seen a number of refugee responses,” such as Syrian refugees crossing into Jordan, and South Sudanese refugees streaming into Uganda. But the speed at which the Ukrainian refugee crisis has ramped up “and the sheer number of people on the move so quickly, so unexpectedly, I think is certainly something unique in my experience for several decades.”
The head of UNICEF Canada agrees that the Ukrainian refugee crisis is unprecedented. “Some people have said it’s the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, but I think it might be the worst in the world since then,” David Morley said in a telephone interview.
“It’s just awful to think about it, and all the women and children, and the risk of separation for families,” said the President and CEO of UNICEF Canada. “I, certainly in my career, cannot remember something of this magnitude.”
Not able to help everyone
“It’s so hard to imagine the numbers of people who are coming across,” Morley said of the mass exodus. The International Organization of Migration (IOM), also known as UN Migration, reported that three million refugees had fled Ukraine as of March 15. And UNICEF also reported on March 15th that “more than 1.5 million children had fled Ukraine.”
“We’re going to be setting up a program of cash transfers for the poorest families that our teams come across both inside Ukraine, if possible, and people who on the move,” Morley revealed. He said that more than a quarter of a million families will be getting funds from UNICEF to help them buy the necessities of life.
While that may sound like a lot people, Morley pointed out the number of refugees could soon swell to four million. “The numbers are just so huge, and we’re not going to be able to help everybody,” he acknowledged.
“There is no humanitarian solution to a humanitarian crisis. We can help, and we make a lot of difference, but there has to be a ceasefire,” Morley continued.
“We’ve been working inside Ukraine for 30 years. And we still have our teams inside the country still. And the ministry of education there says that at least 230 schools have been damaged, destroyed or attacked. What is that going to mean to kids? What’s that going to mean to society? You can’t target civilian entities like schools and hospitals. There has to be a ceasefire. It’s just horrific what’s happening to the people of Ukraine.”
Life in Ukraine
What is life like for children who have not left Ukraine for the safety of neighbouring countries?
“It’s tough of course,” Ukrainian Member of Parliament Inna Sovsun wrote in an email. “Thousands of children have to spend their day not in school, learning math, or playing with other kids in the kindergarten. They have to spend their days and nights in the shelters, constantly hearing bombardments and explosions.”
Life in wartime is very hard for Ukrainian children, Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun said.
In the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, the situation is dire for everyone, including children. “There is a humanitarian disaster in Mariupol,” said Sovsun, who served as Ukraine’s first deputy minister of education and science from 2014 to 2016. “There is no food, drink, medicines. Russians don’t let at least one humanitarian channel with aid get into the town. Hundreds of thousands of people, thousands of children are deliberately tortured there by Russians.”
Regardless of where a conflict is taking place, “children are always the most vulnerable,” Messenger said of life in wartime. And he noted that basic services, such as water treatment and sanitation, have been destroyed in Ukraine. Moreover, food is scare, the electrical grid has been knocked out in many parts of the country, and much of the population must seek shelter outside of their homes. In addition, schools are closed.
“All the normal things that kids count on that give structure to their lives have been ripped away,” Messenger said. That takes a toll on not only the physical health and well-being of children, but also on their mental health.
“Children are particularly affected from a psychological perspective by conflict by devastation like this,” Messenger said. And the longer that the crisis continues, the greater the likelihood that it will have a long term impact on the growth and development of Ukrainian children, he warned.
“It’s horrific,” Morley said of life in besieged Ukraine. “I don’t have words, because three weeks ago there would be children living lives that weren’t that different than the lives of children in Canada,” he said in a sad, hushed tone.
“Ukraine is a middle income country and people in cities are living in apartment buildings, like many Canadians. And their lives are being totally up-ended, the fabric of their life has been ripped apart. And there is incredible trauma for those children.
“Where is their next meal going come from? They’re cold. Some of the cities that been encircled, they’re without electricity and heat.”
Children with disabilities
“There is a whole other group of children with disabilities,” Morley said of another major child protection issue. “Ukraine has a hundred thousand children who are in institutional care. And so how do they stay protected when institutions start to come apart? That’s something we’re very worried about--these particularly vulnerable children. And we’ve worked for years with different ministries inside Ukraine to try and help with the institutionalization. And we’re concerned about those children, because there’s a particular risk of exploitation…When things are in such chaos; it’s hard to find a solution.”
UNICEF has been working in Ukraine for the past 30 years, and the UN agency still has teams working in the war-torn country.
Citing the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy, the Kyiv Independent, an online Ukrainian news outlet, reported that over 2,000 vulnerable children had been “evacuated from social welfare institutions and orphanages” as of March 14.
How many children have been killed by Russian attacks and/or perished due to Russian blockades?
“At least 85 kids were killed since the full-scale war started,” Sovsun told the Whig-Standard in a March 14th email. “One hundred children were injured. This is a terrible act of crime committed by Russians.”
In a virtual address to Canada’s Parliament on March 15, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that 97 children had been killed so far in the war. According to a March 16th post on the Telegram Channel online app, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova stated that at least 103 children have been killed and 100 wounded. According to the United Nations, 64 children have been in the conflict.
According to Emine Dzheppar, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, 108 children had been killed in the war as of March 17, 2022.
On March 17, Emine Dzheppar, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, tweeted: “Since #Russia started war against #Ukraine on February 24, 108 Ukrainian children were killed, more than 100 injured.”
When you hear that children are being killed in Ukraine, what is your reaction?
“It’s so horrific,” replied UNICEF’s Morley. “Their lives are snuffed out…an unimaginable loss for those parents, as well as the precious life of that child. It’s unspeakable.”
Emotional meeting with refugee kids
While in Romania, the World Vision Canada boss met with refugee families and spoke to them at length about what they are experiencing. And he pointed out that the humanitarian nongovernmental organization provides psychological support for refugee children, including safe spaces where kids can play with toys and use art supplies. These safe spaces are staffed by social workers and trained psychologists who can help children process their trauma.
“In the context of that, I had the chance to meet with several families,” Messenger stated. For example, he recalled meeting a woman who had fled the city of Odessa with her mother and three children, crossing into Moldova before arriving in Romania. “The 12 year old was a bit stoic,” Messenger said of the oldest child. “He was quiet. He was, especially attentive when his mother broke down in tears, with deep concern,” he said.
Messenger reported that the children whom he met were experiencing grief, worry, and confusion. And one child who had experienced Russian bombs dropping on his community “spoke with anger at those who had perpetrated this on his family. It was an unusually forceful kind of response,” he said. “This is unfortunately typical of kids in moments like this. They are under stress, under strain, and there is no stability in their future.”
As the crisis unfolds and millions of refugees flee the country, it is important to remember that “each one of those numbers is a person,” Messenger said. “These are families. Everyone has lost loved ones. They’ve lost so much. The scale and scope of the grief and the pain…you can’t put in a statistic.”
Even though Messenger is an experienced humanitarian worker who has seen many conflicts and crises, he admits to being affected by the plight of Ukrainians. “I may be a hard bitten humanitarian worker, but I can tell you that I feel the emotion, lament, and the brokenness and pain in the middle of situations like this, like everybody does,” he said.
Human trafficking and exploitation
“Almost all of the families that we talked to had been affected in some way in terms of families being separated,” Messenger said. Women and children have fled to neighbouring countries, leaving fathers and other adult male relatives behind. (Men of fighting age, 18-60, are not permitted to leave Ukraine.)
Refugee children are at risk of exploitation, “especially children who have been separated from their families,” Messenger warned. In some cases, children have been separated from their families and cross the border unaccompanied. And that makes them vulnerable to human traffickers.
“At the Siret border, where I was, World Vision is part of a hub of groups, like UNICEF, Save the Children, and others, that are working alongside the Romanian government to provide support and be on the lookout for the issues of exploitation or potential trafficking,” Messenger said.
How common is it for Ukrainian children to make the journey out of Ukraine unaccompanied?
“It’s hard to say at the moment what the actual numbers are, because this evolving in real time,” Messenger responded. “We do know that half or more of the refugees who are leaving are children.” In addition, he noted that “there have been parts of Eastern Europe where human trafficking has been more prevalent than other parts of Europe.”
The Romanian government has a good “filtering process” of refugee children, Messenger declared. “They will recognize and ensure that kids who are unaccompanied are addressed early on.”
To protect children from exploitation, it is vital to have safeguards in place, including: separate safe spaces for children and links to local child protection networks, he explained.
Many refugees have fled with only the clothes on their backs and may not be carrying identification papers or documents. Does that present a problem when attempting to determine if children are victims of child trafficking?
“Yeah,” Messenger replied. “That is why it does get more difficult when you have incomplete documentation, when you aren’t sure who’s with whom. There has to be extra vigilance.”
In addition, some children remain on the Ukrainian side of the border, because they do not have access to identity documents. “We are also concerned about those who we may not even get a chance to see,” Messenger said.
Like World Vision, UNICEF is also trying to protect children from human trafficking and abuse. “It’s being sure that systems are in place to trace and support children who are separated from their adults,” Morley said.
“Our teams there are already doing such a great job,” the leader of UNICEF Canada said of the work being done in neighbouring countries, such as Moldova, Romania, and Poland. In response to the crisis, UNICEF is setting up ‘blue dot centres,’ which provide: child friendly spaces, family reunification services, safe spaces for nursing mothers and babies, and a referral centre to help refugees migrate to other parts of Europe.
It seems unlikely that the refugees will be returning to Ukraine in the near future. What are the challenges facing refugees in terms of gaining access to education, employment, and housing?
When developing refugee responses, it is important to consider the short, intermediate, and long term needs of the displaced people, Messenger answered. The first response of World Vision and other NGOs and the United Nations is “make sure the families and children who are crossing or on the move, whether they are inside Ukraine or outside, have the basic things they need to survive,” he explained.
“So we have to focus on shelter, clean water, food, warm clothing. It’s brutally cold where we were. Just imagine kids travelling in that setting,” Messenger said.
After refugees cross the border, the question then becomes, where do they go next? At this stage, the refugees need short term accommodations and some stability as they figure out their next move. In Bucharest, Messenger visited the main train station, where refugees arrive, as well a municipal shelter, which World Vision helps to support.
“There were 30 refugees in this one little shelter that had been given temporary accommodation, free of charge,” Messenger recalled.
In the longer term, refugees need to be integrated in communities where they can get jobs and children can attend school. “That not only has impacts for the refugees themselves, but impacts for the hosting communities. It puts stress on the existing services,” he said.
“Every single person that I spoke to wanted to return to Ukraine. The fact is, unless the conditions are right, unless peace returns, unless they have something to go back to, they are going to be in their destination for some time. So we have to consider these longer term responses, which often take more infrastructure, takes more resources; it’s a different kind of response.
“We’re really in a pivot moment, I think, for the response. As we continue to meet the basic needs of those coming across the border to keep up the short term accommodation and transition, and then really turning our minds to thinking how we are going to accommodate people who don’t have a place to go.”
What do Ukrainian children need most to survive the war?
“Our children need a No-Fly-Zone over our sky,” responded Sovsun, who remains in the capital of Kyiv, which is regularly rocked by Russian missile strikes. “This would save thousands of innocent lives,” she asserted.
“How many more kids should be murdered under bombardments so that our partners would understand that we need a closed sky? If they’re indecisive with the No-Fly-Zone then we ask to provide or sell air defense weapons: anti-aircraft systems, earth-air missiles, fighter jets.”
What is your biggest concern about the welfare of children who remain in Ukraine?
“It’s survival,” Morley replied. “Artillery is falling, and it is going into residential neighbourhoods.” And he called for a ceasefire and a political solution to end the war.
In addition, the UNICEF Canada chief said that Canadians have a chance to demonstrate their “tangible support” for the people of Ukraine by supporting the work of humanitarian organizations. “We have a great opportunity to help here, and I hope we take it,” he said.
Similarly, the World Vision Canada boss urged Canadians to help by donating to organizations that are doing the work on the ground. “Unfortunately, the needs are far outstripping the resources at the moment. So we need to act and act quickly for children,” Messenger said.
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston