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War rages in Ukraine, child protection crisis deepens

"Save the Children is supplying essential items such as food, water and blankets as well as toys for children.” Ukrainian refugees queue at a Save the Children reception centre in Romania on the border with Ukraine. Photo credit: Save the Children

Geoffrey P. Johnston

The brutal Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has displaced millions of people, generating a humanitarian catastrophe that threatens the lives, health and psychological well-being of a generation of children.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24th and subsequent terror campaign against the besieged country’s civilian population has inflicted tremendous suffering on the most vulnerable people in Ukrainian society.

Russian forces are indiscriminately shelling humanitarian corridors, bombing hospitals and schools, launching missile strikes on apartment buildings, and deliberately targeting structures where women and children are known to be sheltering. No one is safe. And there is no safe place in Ukraine.

The vicious Russian assault on villages, towns and cities has forced mothers and their children to flee their homes, risking life and limb in search of refuge and safety.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 3,626,546 refugees fled Ukraine between Feb. 24 and March 22. The refugees have been welcomed by neighbouring countries. For example, UNHCR reports that 2,144,244 of the refugees have been received by Poland, 555,021 by Romania, 371,104 by the Republic of Moldova, and 324,397 by Hungary.

Similarly, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), also known as the UN Migration, reports that approximately 6.5 million people have been internally displaced in Ukraine due to the war. According to a March 21st statement on the IOM website, “many of those displaced are particularly vulnerable, pregnant and breastfeeding women, elderly persons, those with disabilities, chronic illnesses and people directly affected by violence.”

In addition, IOM reports that internally displaced people (IDPs) “need urgent humanitarian assistance amidst the worsening situation in Ukraine, a cessation of hostilities and the creation of humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to escape to safety.”

According to IOM, the total number of Ukrainians displaced by the conflict (refugees who have fled the country plus IDPs) was approximately ten million as of March 21. It is important to note that the total number of refugees includes 186,000 third-country nationals.

Save the Children

How would you describe the mass displacement of Ukrainians by the Russian invasion?

“It is nothing short of a catastrophe,” replied Danny Glenwright, President and CEO of Save the Children Canada. “We know now that more than 3.5 million people have fled Ukraine,” he said in a March 22nd telephone interview from Rome, Italy, where he was meeting with his European counterparts.

Moreover, Glenwright said that millions more want to flee, but are trapped by shelling, bombing and missile strikes. And the destruction of the country’s physical infrastructure—roads and bridges—makes it even more difficult to even attempt an evacuation.

“It’s the largest crisis, catastrophe in Europe since the Second World War. It’s horrible, for children especially. We know that one-and-a half million have fled, and that’s a huge number…It is a very dire situation.”

Mothers and their babies sheltering in the basement of a pediatric hospital in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Amnon Gutman/ Save the Children

New wave of refugees

How does the current wave of refugees fleeing Ukraine differ from earlier waves? For example, are neighbouring countries so overburdened that they can no longer handle the influx of refugees?

“By all accounts, the refugees of Ukraine are still being welcomed in neighbouring countries. We are working in a number of neighbouring countries, at Save the Children, to welcome these refugees at reception centres,” Glenwright answered.

He observed that the refugees crossing the border this week differ from those in past waves. They are probably coming from parts of Ukraine that have just recently come under attack, he said.

“Or they are quite possibly families who chose not to leave at first, because they couldn’t afford it. Or because they wanted to stay with a family business, or loved ones--relatives who couldn’t leave,” he speculated. But due to the increasingly dangerous situation, those reluctant refugees finally made the decision to flee the country.

Many of the refugees fleeing Ukraine today may not possess the same means and resources of previous waves, Glenwright said. “They will be in need of more support than the first wave of refugees, because often those who had money and means to flee left right at the front of the conflict.”

What are some of the challenges of moving refugees from the border countries to other parts of Europe? For example, are refugees reluctant to move farther away from Ukraine?

“I don’t have any data on that, but I would suspect that when you are fleeing your country, and you’d rather not be, especially if you have left a home, or a family, or a pet, or whatever it is. You want to be as close as possible,” Glenwright responded. “Many families will try to stay on the border.”

In some cases, refugees have family in other parts of Europe and/or opportunities for shelter and support, he continued. With so many refugees, “you are going to get all different varieties of refugees” from different socio-economic groups and options.

“I think if you have limited resources, and you are fleeing now, you are probably going to stay as close as possible in the hopes of returning as soon as you can,” Glenwright said.

Human trafficking

According to a March 19th statement issued by UNICEF, “more than 500 unaccompanied children were identified crossing from Ukraine into Romania from 24 February to 17 March.” However, UNICEF noted that actual numbers of “separated children who have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries are likely much higher.” And the UN children’s agency warned that “separated children are especially vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.”

According to the Embassy of Romania to Canada, “Romanian authorities undertake great efforts to support all citizens leaving Ukraine in the current context, both Ukrainian citizens and of other nationalities, who come to Romania through our border checking points with Ukraine, but also from Ukraine via the Republic of Moldova.”

Is Romania taking any special steps to ensure that unaccompanied refugees are protected from human trafficking and/or child exploitation?

“Romania has taken proactive measures to intensify the prevention of human trafficking, and a rapid procedure has been put in place at both the border crossing points and the regional centres for receiving asylum claimants,” the Romania embassy stated in a March 18th email.

“Moreover, the national emergency number 112 and the emergency number for children 119 have been operationalised in the Ukrainian language as well,” the embassy revealed. “A special procedure will be operationalised soon to register, track and provide access to social services--health, education, child protection--for unaccompanied minors coming from Ukraine to Romania.”

Is Save the Children seeing incidents of human trafficking or exploitation? Have any plots been foiled?

Although he could not cite specific cases, Glenwright explained that when large numbers of people are on the move in times of crisis, children are at great risk of being separated from their families, “and they are especially vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.”

How would a child end up in the hands of human traffickers during a refugee crisis?

Human trafficking networks already existed in Eastern Europe, Glenwright explained. And children who fall into the clutches of human traffickers end up being exploited in the sex trade or for child labour.

“Save the Children and our teams are looking for children who are crossing the borders alone. We are looking for children who: express fear, who look lost, who look helpless, who look vulnerable. All of those are things that we, at Save the Children, are trained to spot. But those are also things that people looking to exploit children can easily see. Trafficking networks are operating in the same spaces we that are.”

Glenwright explained that human traffickers offer unaccompanied children support, such as promising to drive them to the nearest town to buy food. After that, the young victims are forced into the human trafficking network. They fall victim to the sex trade or forced child labour.

Parents with their two sons aged five and eight years old sheltering inside a school in Kyiv, Ukraine with many other families. Photo credit: Amnon Gutman/ Save the Children

No safe place

What is the situation like for children who are still in Ukraine?

“There is no place right now that is safe in Ukraine,” Glenwright replied. “And so the humanitarian situation in the country is much worse than that at the border.”

He said that the healthcare system in Ukraine is “stretched to the limits.” In addition, entire regions lack access to water.

“There are several towns in Donetsk, where we know that 200,000 people don’t have access to water. There’s constant shelling in some areas; I’m thinking of Luhansk and Mariupol.” (Donetsk and Luhansk, located in Eastern Ukraine, are administrative regions known as oblasts.)

Glenwright also noted that schools and hospitals are being targeted. “So far 43 hospitals have been attacked, 464 schools have been damaged and 64 completely destroyed,” he said.

According to the World Health Organization website, there were 51 confirmed attacks on healthcare facilities in Ukraine as of March 23. However, Ukraine’s health ministry reported that the actual number of attacks was much higher, claiming that Russian forces had shelled 135 hospitals.

“We know that at least 59 children have been killed in the conflict, and we expect that it’s actually much higher,” Glenwright said. “Vulnerable groups in the country, especially those who are on the move, trying to flee or don’t have shelter, are in a very, very bad state.”

In addition, he said that civilians trapped by shelling and bombardment cannot get access to humanitarian aid. As a result, supplies of food, water and medicine are dwindling. And those needing medical treatment are going without. “It’s a very bad situation,” he added.

In addition to the threats to their lives, many children are also enduring emotional trauma and psychological distress.

Protecting and helping children

Are the refugee children who are coming out of Ukraine today sicker or weaker than in previous waves?

“What we know is that for the last couple of weeks there has been an Arctic blast in Ukraine,” Glenwright responded. “The temperatures dropped below zero on many occasions. Those low temperatures affect children more than they do adults, especially young children. I think those who are already not well nourished, haven’t had access to food and water and have been in the elements overnight or for many hours, are quite likely to be crossing the border in diminished health compared to those who crossed in the early days of the conflict.”

What is Save the Children doing to help refugee children fleeing Ukraine and those who remain the country?

“Our first priority is getting to children travelling alone,” Glenwright answered. When they cross the border, Save the Children reception centres are there to provide them with food, water, shelter, warm clothes, and any kind of medicine they may need.

Second, Save the Children provides child friendly spaces, where refugee kids can play “and have a moment of quiet, a bit of a rest from the pandemonium,” he stated. Trained professionals are available at the reception centres to provide psychological support to the children. Save the Children also offers family tracing and reunification services at border crossings.

“We also provide educational opportunities, as well,” Glenwright added.

“Within Ukraine, it’s much more difficult for us to be operating,” he acknowledged. “We are operating only in those places where it is safe to do so. And most of our teams have stayed where they were operating.” In those areas, the NGO works with local agencies to attempt to bring in supplies—food, water, and medicine.

“We’re setting up similar child friendly spaces anywhere we can within Ukraine,” Glenwright revealed. These centres serve young mothers with children, as they try to get to the border. Save the Children centres in Ukraine also provide shelter for a night or two for those families on the move.

Fear in the eyes of a refugee child

“The entire situation is tragic, and it’s heartbreaking,” Glenwright said in conclusion. And the crisis is exacerbating an already serious global situation, “where one in six children on this planet is living in a conflict zone. And there are 35 million kids who have been displaced because of conflict.”

When looking into the eyes of refugee children, you can see “the fear and the terror and the worry, whether it’s Ukraine or Yemen or Ethiopia or Syria,” said Glenwright. “That look of terror is the same no matter where it happens.”

Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston


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