kyiv has already announced that it is toughening the rules for dealing with at-risk children. The Aerial Recovery team is working with Ukrainian authorities to create a system that would make it easier to track parentless children in the country. “The Ukrainian government really doesn’t have the capacity to handle this problem on its own,” said Jeremy Locke, the team’s chief operating officer.
Children are easy prey
Aerial Recovery is also in contact with the Salam association which helps refugees. According to its representatives, children who are transported to the Ukrainian-Polish border in good faith and with the aim of helping can become an easy target.
“They are very easy prey – they are looking for help,” says the charity’s Martin Kvernbekk. “So if you’re an adult and you have food or shelter for them, they’ll go with you. They don’t know any better.”
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He reportedly heard from many different sources about missing children and people smugglers wearing reflective vests and posing as aid organizations.
“Gangs are very advanced – they are large, well-funded networks that make a living from it. They do it well even in times of peace. Now there is war, chaos, which they can use to captivate these children even more and these women,” says Kvernbekk.
He also points out that most men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine because they have to fight, but a man with three or more children can accompany them across borders. At the same time, there is no control at the borders themselves to know if the children they are accompanying really belong to them. “There’s no way to verify that,” Kvernbekk says.
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EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson also raised concerns about the matter earlier this week. “We have reports of criminals taking orphans from orphanages in Ukraine, crossing borders, pretending to be their relatives, and then using them for human trafficking,” Johansson said.
The problem is also exacerbated by the lack of screening procedures for people who voluntarily assist or harbor refugees once they have crossed the border. “Everyone knows it’s happening, but because of the chaos here, it’s hard to say how much. The authorities are trying to keep track of what happened to all the children, but there’s no has no paper trail,” says Kvernbekk.
Ukraine has begun to deal with this problem
The Ukrainian authorities, with the help of NGOs, are in the process of setting up a system of registering the names of all displaced children and establishing safe zones in the east of the country. On Wednesday, March 9, Ukraine’s Minister of Child Protection discussed with the Air Recovery Team plans to strengthen security protocols and create safe zones in Lviv.
“That way we wouldn’t have to take these children across the border and Ukraine would have control over where their children go,” says Jeremy Locke.
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Volodymyr Lys, regional head of the social policy ministry’s child protection service in Lviv, told the BBC that the first 10 days of the war had been difficult, but things had gotten better. “It was very chaotic. No one knew where the children were going and no one thought a system needed to be created. Now there are a number of NGOs and volunteers who know how to do it, and everyone knows what to do,” Lys explained.
More than a million children are likely to remain in the country’s conflict zones, he said. Most are now evacuating east rather than overseas. “Currently, there are 550 orphans and children in care in the Lviv region, and we expect that number to double. Our team spent ten days comforting the children at the train station, providing them with food and shelter. ukraine is absolutely horrified by what is happening,” says Lys.
Children fleeing abroad should be at risk of being trafficked or forced into prostitution. “Of course it can happen, especially if they are traveling without their legal representative or arriving at the border unaccompanied.”
Five thousand children are still missing
Sadly, Locke also told the BBC that according to Ukrainian authorities around 5,000 children are still missing from their records and no one knows what happened to them.
“Either they were victims of the war, or they crossed the border, or they were taken by smugglers or people who do it wrong,” Locke told the BBC.
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“At the moment, there really is no way to know for sure how many are missing. The authorities are now trying to find out what happened to all the children,” notes Martin Kvernbekk.
Rob Lawrie, aid worker and ex-soldier, also works for Aerial Recovery in Ukraine as a volunteer. “We have seen smugglers use war to reach the most vulnerable. Hopefully we now know how to get these children out of dangerous areas and ensure they do not fall into the hands of traffickers.”