MEPs have overwhelmingly voted in favour of a resolution to provide more protection for Ukrainian refugee children who have fled the country but now face risks of human trafficking and abuse.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, more than 2.5 million children have left, with or without parents, and are at a heightened risk of falling into the hands of predators and organised criminal gangs.

The vast majority of European lawmakers favoured the resolution with 509 votes for, three against, and 47 abstentions on Thursday (7 April).

A parliamentary press release states that “every child has the right to be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse.”

“Many arrived without their parents, I think about 100,000 children in Ukrainian institutions, more than half of them with disabilities. It is a top priority for all of us to urgently respond to their needs”, said Dubravka Šuica, vice-president of the Commission in charge of Democracy, during the debate on Tuesday (5 April). 

Since the war started, more than four million people have left Ukraine, mainly to neighbouring Poland, Moldova, Romania and Czechia. According to figures released by UNICEF last week, of these four million, more than half are children.

“As the number of children fleeing their homes continues to climb, we must remember that every single one of them needs protection, education, safety and support,” said UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell. 

In response to this threat, MEPs recommended the presence of border protection officers to identify and register each child arriving in a new country. 

“We are working to obtain sufficient data so that all children are properly registered”, said Šuica.

As many travel alone, MEPs also recommend that these highly vulnerable children be identified and quickly assigned a guardian by the applicable country’s child protection services.

Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, told MEPs that “at the EU border, 282 Frontex staff are helping to identify people at risk of trafficking.”

She continued: “Europol is gathering intelligence coordinating police cooperation, monitoring online activities by potential traffickers and by people trying to exploit the services of victims”. 

EURACTIV sounded the alarm about the risk of trafficking at the start of March, following various NGOs’ reports.

“What we’re already beginning to pick up on the border across Poland, Romania, and other countries that surround Ukraine is stories, evidence of people traffickers operating and people disappearing,” the CEO of Unseen UK, Andrew Wallis, told EURACTIV at the time.

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Family reunification 

The second top priority for MEPs is family reunification. The war in Ukraine has separated many families as all men aged 18 and over had to stay in their country to fight.

Some families have chosen to send their children alone to a neighbouring country for safety, taking the risk that “this might be the last time we see our children”, said Johansson. 

“Many Ukrainian parents have been forced to take this very, very difficult decision. These Ukrainian parents want us to keep their children safe. They count on us,” she added. 

MEPs have called for relocation mechanisms to allow separated children or families to be reunited in the same country, giving the example of the solidarity mechanism for medical transfers in the EU for children in need of urgent life-saving treatment and therapy.

The press release also writes that governments must guarantee the same access to education and health services as other children in the host countries”, the press release also writes.

Strong psychological support, maternal health support and protection against gender-based violence are among the health services included in the reference.

After one month and a half of war, Putin’s army has reportedly killed 158 children in Ukraine and wounded many more, according to Commissioner Johansson. 

“These war crimes must not go unpunished. Eurojust and Europol will have a key role to play here”, she said before concluding: “the protection and support to the refugee children are at a top priority of my 10-Point Plan that has gone to guide the commission’s work in the coming weeks”.

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[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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