Thousands of children in Ukraine’s orphanages are in a “chaotic” situation, with NGOs and experts on the run.
Ukraine is an unusual phenomenon, with Europe having the largest number of children – at least 100,000, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – disabled by a huge, opaque and often ineffective network of orphanages, boarding schools or institutions.
“Before the war, thousands of children lived in these institutions, which is huge,” Caritas warned the coordinator of the French anti-human trafficking group, Genevieve Colas.
For the most part, the current situation is “chaotic,” Halina Kurilo, Ukraine’s representative for the human rights group Disability Rights International (DRI), told AFP.
“Many institutions were evacuated suspiciously. Some children were left behind because of their disability. Some institutions went west and merged with others, their facilities overflowed (…) and, in confusion, children could be lost.” , He warns.
On February 25, a Russian bombing raid on an institution in Verozel where 55 children under the age of 4 were kept.
“Fortunately, the children and staff were not in the building,” said Halina Postleuk, Ukraine’s director of the NGO Hope and Homes for Children.
It was not decided to evacuate the site that day, which was made impossible by the intensity of the attack. As of March 9, 55 children could be taken further west to a children’s hospital in Kiev.
1000 km by bus
Another group of 5- to 14-year-old children from an organization in Nezhin lived in an Odyssey about 1,000 km east-west of Ukraine to survive the bombing, said Marita, director of the center, which takes children whose families cannot care for them.
“The Russians started approaching. The children heard gunshots, explosions. It was painful for them,” he recalled.
Some families went to pick up their children, but in seven of them it was impossible because of access problems. Authorities decide to take them by bus and join them at another Vorota institution. It is 24 hours by road near the Slovak border.
There were curtains on the windows of the bus so that “the children could not see the destroyed house, the dead people”, Marita added.
“Three days after we left, the Russians came to Nezin. If we had stayed longer, we would not have been able to leave the city.”
In addition to war, other dangers await minors. In Ukraine, these organizations “create a huge unorganized system with little control. In the chaos of this war, children are easy prey for criminal organizations,” warns Eric Rosenthal, DRI’s founder and executive director.
The fear dates back to before the war, when Ukraine already had scenes of torture in some orphanages, including forced labor and sexual exploitation in private homes.
There have even been allegations of illegal adoption and organ trafficking, Rosenthal said, citing the example of 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.
“Children are missing from orphanages and taken to Russia. Others are displaced in Ukraine without being identified,” he said.
In recent weeks, “we know that children have been moved from orphanages to neighboring countries, such as Romania or Moldova, but there is also a big problem of trafficking in these countries,” he added.
According to the NGO Ukrainian Children’s Rights Network, about 70,000 homeless minors have been living in areas affected by the violence since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
About 31,000 children who still had parents, or legal guardians, have returned, although their condition is at risk if these families cannot provide for them properly.
Out of control
Contacted in Lviv, western Ukraine, American Colin Holt Thompson, 55, who has been a volunteer at a Ukrainian orphanage since 2006, issued a warning.
The adoptive mother of six Ukrainians, she flew to Lviv on March 3 to help orphans and continue the process of adopting a teenage girl that began three years ago. He said he was “shocked” to see the “chaos” of removing these minors.
At the end of March, according to official figures, 3,000 children had migrated abroad, mainly to Poland, Germany, Italy, Romania, Austria and the Czech Republic.
“No government is ready for this big reception,” Thompson told AFP.
“But my concern was heightened when I received a call from government officials asking if we had the names or ages of children traveling to Lviv by bus or train, and who had no sign of their identities, or of their peers.”
He also claimed to have received “annoying” calls from someone who asked him for a list of children from an orphanage whose network was trying to remove minors from Mariupol, especially in the process of adoption from the United States.
“This man said he could take children to Greece on a private plane. This is madness! There are serious concerns about child trafficking,” he warned.
“I can assure you: there will be children who will never return to Ukraine, and others who will be lost. And now there are thousands of children in hotels, camps or private homes with whom we do not know whether they will be able to. Believe me.” By
Maur, the 18-year-old girl he is adopting, arrived at an orphanage at the age of four and has already been removed from her center in Donetsk since the 2014 war against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine began. Now he has been removed In an orphanage in Lviv, where the siren sounded, he took refuge in a “bunker.”
“The director of the center wants to take her and the other children to Austria,” Thompson reported.
Although the government on March 12 issued rules for the removal and monitoring of these children, much remains to be done, according to NGOs.
The Children’s Rights Network estimates that 2,500 minors urgently need to be relocated from war zones.
“Children are terrified. Adults try to reassure children,” said Daria Kasianova, director of Ukraine’s Children’s Village program.
“Responsible people notice delays in the development of these children, who eat little and sleep poorly,” he warned.
Dangers of “sexual abuse”
The border is also a risky area.
Caritas Romania’s Thomas Hackel, who opens a center at the Siret border checkpoint, said his team had recently arrested a man who was trying to take two young Ukrainian girls to Italy.
“We know that drug dealers blend in with the population, they offer a way of transportation. There were a lot of signs that led us to distrust this guy: he insisted too much, he wanted to take them to a certain place (…) there. There are so many stories out there, “he explained.
At border crossings, or in the countries they travel through, children carry themselves in a car with a stranger, or at the risk of being “a little domesticated slave,” or of being sexually exploited, Kolas said. , Caritas from France.
Contacting AFP on the Ukraine-Moldova border, Yuri Citrinbaum from the aid NGO IsraAID, which has been working since the end of February, said the situation was “chaotic” in the first three weeks of the war.
Later, the flow “calmed down”, but “concerns about human trafficking (…) are growing”.
In the early hours of the morning, Marietta hopes the situation will calm down and says she has no intention of going into exile. But if Russian forces come forward, he does not know what to do with the children. “It’s better not to worry about it,” he said.