Inside the journey of Ukrainian refugee children and families

by Afshan Khan, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, and the Special Coordinator for the Refuge and Migrant Response in Europe

Afshan Khan
Afshan Khan at the Blue Dots Centre in Moldova
23 March 2022

In the past three weeks Moldova’s southern border has seen crowds that one could hardly imagine here even several weeks ago. With thousands waiting to flee war-torn Ukraine, the life of both communities has changed irremediably. Armed violence has not spared civilians for weeks and millions of Ukrainian families were forced to leave their homes in a matter of days or, in some instances, hours. Now they are arriving in Moldova and neighbouring countries in pursuit of safety. 

Since the first day of the war waged against Ukraine, UNICEF's teams have been on the ground, providing life-saving aid to the most vulnerable children both in Ukraine and outside of its borders. Together with a group of first-responders in Moldova, I arrived at the border crossing point of Palanca that has already seen thousands of Ukrainians seeking refuge in the past weeks.

The first thing that catches your eye as you look at the people traveling through Palanca is that there are almost no men among them. The vast majority of those fleeing the hostilities in Ukraine are women and children as men between 18 to 60 are banned from leaving the country. According to UNICEF’s estimates, at least one child is crossing Ukraine’s border every single minute. The total number of children seeking asylum in Moldova and the European Union has already gone beyond 1.5 million. As for those children who have been displaced within Ukraine, a comprehensive count could not be done yet due to the rapidly changing situation.

The second observation that you can hardly miss at Palanca is the profound exhaustion on the faces of those who walk across the border. Many women and children we meet started traveling days ago. Roads, trains, buses, queues, shelters – families lost the count of those on the way to Palanca. The journey’s logistical hardships are coupled with many dangers, ranging from gunfire to air strikes.

Ukrainian refugees, some with children, arrive at the Palanca border crossing in Moldova
Ukrainian refugees, some with children, arrive on March 08, 2022 at the Palanca border crossing in Moldova, on the Moldova-Ukraine border after they fled war in their country.

Once they reach the crossing point, families have yet to face another challenge. In the bitter cold, children and their mothers form lines stretching many kilometres away from the border. There are two separate queues. The first one, for cars, is so long that some mistakenly confuse it for a traffic jam on the way. The second one, for pedestrians, is somewhat shorter, although probably more exhausting. Mothers are clutching their children and hurriedly packed suitcases – the only remnants of their safe, pre-war lives. Some are trundling pushchairs or prams; others have three or even four children to look after.

After crossing the border, Ukrainian mothers and children receive, along with long-awaited safety, an immediate aid from the Moldovan government, working together with UNICEF. Welcomed at Blue Dots placed by UNICEF along the road, families get what some of them described as “a much-needed moment to breathe”. Designed to provide a safe space for children and their families, the Blue Dots offer mothers and children vital services, play, protection and counselling in a single location.

As mothers crossed the border, I could hear them say: “Hold my hand, hold my hand. Whatever you do, do not let go of my hand!”. What would seem a generic comment in any other circumstances was truly essential in this context. In the past three weeks, UNICEF has received many reports about missing or unaccompanied children traveling through Ukraine and across its western borders. We now work with the Moldovan government to increase the capacity of their social protection systems to screen, track and account for unaccompanied children. They then attempt reuniting the children with their families or provide temporary protection to shield them from risks of trafficking and abuse. The Blue Dots serve as a platform to identify unaccompanied children, as trained workers activate a screening mechanism during the art programme held at these safe spaces.

In less than three weeks, Moldova has welcomed 200,000 refugees. It is at least half the size of the population of the country’s capital, Chisinau.The others opt to continue traveling to Romania or further into the European Union. Regardless of their choice, asylum seekers can receive immediate support from the local authorities in Moldova, including food, lodging and transportation.

A child therapist and social worker assists families at a UNICEF-UNHCR Blue Dot centre
A child therapist and social worker (right) assists families on March 16, 2022 at a UNICEF-UNHCR Blue Dot centre at a refugee reception centre close to the Palanca border crossing in Moldova, near the Moldova-Ukraine border.

The Moldovan government has built more than one effective partnership to house Ukrainian mothers and children: both local hotels and university dorms have opened their doors. Many others are hosted in temporary shelters: theatres, gyms, sports stadiums, basketball courts and many other premises have been rapidly turned into accommodation. MoldExpo Exhibition Center, a location for trade fairs, has also found a new purpose. Structured cubicles used for commercial events have become tiny homes with beds, mattresses and pillows for the centre’s new residents.

As our team arrived at the MoldExpo Exhibition Center, we immediately noticed the difference between the atmosphere here and at Palanca. Most of the families seemed calm and rested. They now had access to hot meals, electricity and running water. With a variety of food available in the centre’s kitchen areas, one would also assume that nutrition is no longer a concern. However, for many mothers with small children, finding the right nutrients, continuing breastfeeding or preventing infants’ diarrhoea remains a challenge.

Another invisible danger that looms in almost every collective centre these days is a high risk of an infectious disease outbreak. In the past five years, Ukraine has faced more than one outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases. In fact, a polio outbreak continues in the country to this day, and the latest case of polio-induced paralysis was confirmed in February. As this crippling disease recognises no borders, it now threatens every unvaccinated child in the region. With many Ukrainian children missing their compulsory vaccination doses due the war-related disruption of the healthcare system, we must ensure they have access to immunization as soon as they arrive in the host countries. UNICEF is already working with the Moldovan government to roll-out immunization services for the youngest refugees and their families.

Having spent some time at the MoldExpo Exhibition Center, we had a chance to observe how it is being transformed from empty premises with beds and pillows into a structured child-friendly space. Blue Dots have been set up and first children joined the art programme. Moldova has already opened their educational and day-care centres to Ukrainian asylum seekers, and, as of today, 191 children have enrolled. Access to quality pre-school and school education marks the start of a new beginning both for them and their parents. Meanwhile, there are thousands of children back in Ukraine who are robbed of the chance to learn, as their families are still trapped on the roads or bomb shelters.

We are still far from understanding every layer of the unprecedented influence that the war in Ukraine has on our communities. Although, something has become clear to me after visiting Moldova last week. The war in Ukraine is not just any crisis. It is, first and foremost, a child protection crisis. A child protection crisis that will have an impact on the entire region.

Afshan Khan is a UNICEF Regional Director Europe and Central Asia, UNICEF Representative to the UN in Geneva, Special Coordinator, Refugee and Migrant Response in Europe. She has spent 25 years in the United Nations, primarily with UNICEF, responding to some of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time, from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami to war and conflict affected countries.