‘The children don’t understand what’s happening’: At least 400,000 children fleeing Ukraine at risk of hunger, illness, trafficking, abuse

Monday 7 March 2022

Two-year-old Danilo* fled Ukraine to Romania with his mother and sister. They are staying at a Reception Centre where Save the Children is running child-friendly spaces where children can play and recover from the traumatic experiences they’ve been through. Photo by Dan Stewart, Save the Children.

At least 400,000 children are on the move across Eastern Europe and at risk of hunger, illness, trafficking and abuse, Save the Children said today, as the number of people fleeing the Russian military operation in Ukraine passed one million.

Save the Children estimates that at least 40%[i] of the people who have fled Ukraine to Romania, Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia and Lithuania, to seek safety are children, some arriving with nothing but the clothes on their back.

The United Nations, reporting that one million people have now crossed the borders, said this scale of movement by people could become “Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century”. This number does not include those displaced within Ukraine.

The massive exodus has led to 24-hour queues at border checkpoints with refugees being sheltered in repurposed schools once they get out of Ukraine as well as in private homes, makeshift camps, and conference centres, but this has raised concerns for children.

Anna*, 29, has fled to Romania with her four-year-old daughter Daryna* and two-year-old son Danilo*. They fled their home in Ukraine when fighting approached a nuclear power station, alongside Anna’s sister and mother.

Anna said: “We fled because we were scared. There was bombing in the area. The airport had been bombed and fighting was getting near to a nuclear power station.

“On the way we saw planes overhead and the roads were very busy. We saw rockets being fired and destroying buildings. There were sirens blaring constantly. My husband stayed behind. He drove us to the border before going back. We could only bring a few clothes and some medicines.

“The children don’t understand what’s happening. But we feel very bad.”

Anna told Save the Children about the reaction of her daughter Daryna: “Sometimes when she heard bangs she’d say she was scared. When we were running to hide in the cellar she said she was scared and talked about tanks coming. We just hope the fighting will end and we can return home.” 

Anna hopes they can continue onto Czech Republic where they have friends who can help them.

Irina Saghoyan, Save the Children’s Eastern Europe Director, said:“We know that when children are on the move, they are at heightened risk of trafficking, abuse including sexual violence and serious psychological distress.

“It is also unconscionable that some children and their families are forced to be outside with no shelter in such freezing temperatures. We are incredibly worried about the risks of illnesses like hypothermia.

Children and adults leaving Kiev. Phot by Amnon Gutman, Save the Children.

“This is before we even start to comprehend the enormous impact of the events of the past week on these children’s mental wellbeing. Their homes, schools and communities have been destroyed, they have been separated from family and friends – their entire lives and everything they hold dear have been ripped from them in the space of a week.

“For now, it is vital that all these children entering neighbouring countries are protected, and have access to life-saving food, clean water, shelter and mental health support. But the catastrophe that we are seeing unfold before our eyes will not stop until the violence stops and children and their families are safe. In every conflict it is children who bear the brunt and this needs to stop.”

Anna and her children stayed at a temporary camp before moving to a Reception Centre where they are now staying and where Save the Children runs child friendly spaces, where children can play and recover from the traumatic experiences they have been through.

Save the Children also provides families like Anna’s with advice and information, as well as food and other essentials.

The Children’s Emergency Fund allows Save the Children to respond to wherever the need is greatest to reach children quickly with the essentials they need to survive.

A family in a shelter in Kiev. Photo by Amnon Gutman, Save the Children.

[i] On average, children usually make up 39% of the refugee population, and in this case, because men are staying behind in Ukraine, the proportion of children is likely to be far higher.