Children fleeing Ukraine at risk of human trafficking, U.N. warns

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March 19 (UPI) — The United Nations Children’s Fund warned Saturday that children fleeing the war in Ukraine are at a high risk for human trafficking and exploitation.

More than 1.5 million children have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began in February as more than 500 unaccompanied children were identified crossing into Romania alone, according to the statement from UNICEF.

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The humanitarian aid agency said that the true number of children who have been separated from their families is likely much higher.

“The war in Ukraine is leading to massive displacement and refugee flows – conditions that could lead to a significant spike in human trafficking and an acute child protection crisis,” said Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia.

“Displaced children are extremely vulnerable to being separated from their families, exploited, and trafficked. They need governments in the region to step up and put measures in place to keep them safe.”

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UNICEF said that it would be working with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and local groups and governments to increase the number of so-called “Blue Dots” — safe spaces for children and women fleeing Ukraine which help identify unaccompanied and separated children.

Data from the UNHCR shows that more than 3.3 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the start of the invasion.

Most of the refugees, about 2 million, left Ukraine for Poland — a member country of the European Union’s Schengen Area, which allows people to move freely between countries. As such, it remains unclear how many refugees have since continued to other countries within Europe.

Another 300,000 refugees have fled to Hungary while 240,000 fled to Slovakia, both of which are inside the Schengen Area. Another 518,000 have fled to Romania while 359,000 have fled to Moldova.

As the situation for refugees becomes direr, Ukrainian officials said in a statement that 10 new humanitarian corridors have been agreed upon to evacuate residents.

A new corridor will be planned to evacuate residents from the besieged city of Mariupol, where Russian forces bombed a theater serving a civilian shelter.

The city has been under attack since March 1, as humanitarian groups raised alarms about the crisis faced by residents who did do have access to food, water and medicine.

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That corridor will run from Mariupol to the city of Zaporizhzhia in the Donetsk region, where Russian forces took control of the country’s second-largest nuclear power plant.

Iryna Vereshchuk, a deputy prime minister in Ukraine, said that a convoy of buses has already left to transport residents to Zaporizhzhia as trucks carrying aid for the displaces residents were sent to the area.

Several humanitarian corridors will also be established near Kyiv, the capitol of Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have been successfully fending off the Russian attack near Kyiv as fighting intensifies in the suburbs.

“Residents of settlements, please be attentive. Because it is extremely difficult to open the corridors, the enemy insidiously breaks our agreements. Please, if there is an opportunity, use it today,” Vereshchuk said. “We continue to work on new routes for humanitarian corridors.”

Humanitarian corridors have also been agreed upon in the Luhansk region while a plan to send trucks with humanitarian aid to Kehrson has been made.