The EU must do more to protect Ukraine’s children

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A common and uniform registration process and more national protection centres are needed in the EU to help protection children fleeing the war in Ukraine, write Dragos Pislaru and Adrián Vázquez Lázara. [Shutterstock/Drop of Light]

A common and uniform registration process and more national protection centres are needed in the EU to help protect children fleeing the war in Ukraine, write Dragos Pislaru and Adrián Vázquez Lázara.

Dragos Pislaru and Adrián Vázquez Lázara are MEPs in the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament.

Since the Russian invasion began, millions of Ukrainians have fled their country or been displaced from their homes. This has become the largest exodus Europe has suffered since World War II. And it keeps worsening each day, as the war continues.

Certainly, the worst affected are children. They leave behind their home, their friends, and the safe space they have known in their short lives, fleeing the war scared, stressed and facing new risks such as abduction and human trafficking. That is why the reception, identification and tracking of minors must be carried out as quickly and efficiently as possible.

However, this desired agility must not lead to a lack of control and proper registration by the authorities of Member States. Otherwise, we will be facing the great danger of illegal adoptions.

As we witness in horror through the press, this risk is not abstract or intangible, but real and pressing.

Last month, the Spanish newspaper El País reported the story of a group of 30 Ukrainian minors who were, allegedly, travelling by bus from the Polish border to the Spanish province Huelva. Once there, they were supposed to catch a boat that would take them to the Canary Island Fuerteventura.

However, they never made it to that boat. The Spanish national and regional authorities spent a week trying to find out the whereabouts of these children, a group of minors that, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs, never existed at all. Or, much more likely and way worse, did or do exist, but simply never made it to Spain.

This is just one example of the chaos and uncertainty that we are navigating in response to the Ukrainian crisis. We wrestle with a massive ocean of hoaxes and misinformation, that intoxicate the reception process. And this only contributes to further endangering the most vulnerable: Ukrainian children.

We need to act. We need to do it now. And we need to do it together, in coordination between Member States and European institutions.

First, every minor arriving at an EU border should be welcomed in a national protection centre, not sheltered in ad hoc facilities like sport centres. Kids should be welcomed by counsellors and children experts, and covered and protected under the country’s protection system from the very beginning.

Afterwards, they should be welcomed by temporary host families, in organisations recommended by UNICEF or the Interdisciplinary Team on Childhood Research at the Warsaw University, such as SOS Children’s Villages.

Finding the children a new family is not an easy task, especially in cases concerning siblings. We must raise awareness of the importance of keeping brothers and sisters together, but we should not accept that the lack of a host family can lead to keeping minors in ad hoc premises that are unsecure and hard to control.

Second, the security. Refugee children who are unaccompanied, or in large numbers with few adults guarding them will need watching. Local law-enforcement agencies must be involved in monitoring the status of these minors, by checking in on them and having permanent information on their whereabouts.

Third, we must highlight that these unaccompanied minors should not all necessarily be treated as orphans. Many of them are not. Consequently, family reunification must be member states’ priority. Adoption should only occur when there is absolutely no possibility of family tracking and reunification, as stated by the European Network of the Ombudspersons for Children.

For all these elements, we must work on creating a common and uniform registration process. A process we are currently lacking and generates dubiety and mistrust in our systems. A European Child register would help us monitor and assess the newer risks this situation poses to vulnerable kids.

Of course, it would need a harmonised approach. It has to be scalable and work in the long-term, meeting the short-term demands of the crisis but also offering new solutions to risks European children have faced in the past.

The consequences of this war will have a lasting effect into the future. A war is not only an open wound that we see bleeding when the bombs fall, but also a scar that will define the life of an entire generation. It is our job to make it less traumatic for those who have suffered the most. We have a responsibility towards these children.

We urge the Commission to work faster and closer with Member States regarding the European Child Guarantee, to address the humanitarian crisis of today, and start the reconstruction of tomorrow.

Most of these children, we hope, will go back. They will become the future of a new Ukraine, hardened by this struggle and having to rise to yet unknown struggles. How do we want them to remember Europe and its help provided in their worst hour?

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