In the past 10 days, 1.7 million people have fled Ukraine as fighting intensified in and round the country's major urban centers, putting millions of children and other civilians at grave risk.
While renewing calls for immediate suspension of hostilities to allow humanitarian access to those in need, UNICEF is also ramping up support services for refugees at 'Blue Dot' centers in neighboring countries.
The centers are being set up one by one at strategic points along transit routes in close collaboration with UNHCR and local government and civil society partners.
Designed to be one-stop shops for families on the move, the hubs provide sustenance, respite, information, guidance and psychosocial support, among other services.
As children and families arrive, individual needs are assessed. Key needs include health care, psychosocial support, child protection and help tracing and reunifying separated family members, UNICEF reports.
Many children are arriving in border countries on their own, putting them at heightened risk of violence, abuse and exploitation.
"The risk of trafficking soars in emergencies," Executive Director Catherine Russell and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi noted in a joint statement on March 7.
As hundreds of thousands of children flee Ukraine — some traveling alone — UNICEF calls for vigilance against child trafficking
UNICEF is calling on all neighboring countries to assist efforts to identify and register every unaccompanied or separated child and to help facilitate family tracing and reunification.
"Unaccompanied and separated children are particularly vulnerable, and their immediate needs and safety where they are must be prioritized," Russell and Grandi said.
"Every effort should be made to reunify children with their families when possible, if such reunification is in their best interest."
Most refugees are mothers traveling with their children. Some are met by friends or relatives who provide them with transportation to points further west. Others must find their own means of transportation and accommodation.
The Blue Dots offer a safe place to rest, along with:
- hygiene supplies
- mental health and psychosocial support
- basic legal counseling
- early education kits (a few toys, puzzles and games to keep young children engaged)
- referrals to local services and other information
Each child receives a health checkup as they arrive, explains Voica Tomus, Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF Romania. Those who require medical care including vaccinations are referred to local health facilities.
Each child is also registered by a child protection officer to safeguard against harm, trafficking or abuse, and a best interest assessment is conducted if the child arrives without a caregiver. To help coordinate next steps, the Blue Dots share a single database that is also accessible to partner organizations and to national authorities.
Some families stay at a Blue Dot only briefly while they await transport to their next destination, Tomus says. Those who stay longer can rest inside tents that are heated.
UNICEF is in the process of opening a total of 26 Blue Dots at key border locations in Belarus, Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Each center has the capacity to support 3,000 to 5,000 people per day.
In Poland, UNICEF has deployed child protection, emergency and water and sanitation experts to help establish eight Blue Dot hubs along border areas, in collaboration with UNHCR. In Moldova, UNICEF is working with its five largest child protection partners to set up at least seven Blue Dots along the border with Ukraine.
Here’s what a response for refugees fleeing #Ukraine looks like from the inside. This is a--Blue Dot, a temporary center where children and women can seek #protection, support, food, and other emergency supply. @UNICEFRomania @UNICEF_UA pic.twitter.com/2hy9xZj9hO— UNICEF Europe C.Asia (@UNICEF_ECA) March 7, 2022
"We try to ... make sure that children who are coming across are safe, which is not always an easy thing to determine, but we're working hard to do that," Russell said on March 5 during a visit to the Blue Dot center in Sighetu Marmatiei, the first to open. "It's a good place ... because people are happy to be leaving Ukraine, but it's also a sad place to be sure, because there is so much uncertainty and people are exhausted crossing the border.
"They are very happy to have some people greeting them here," Russell added. "The Romanian government has been very welcoming, the community here has been very welcoming."
UNICEF is coordinating with other UN agencies — the refugee agency UNHCR, International Organization for Migration, World Health Organization — and with national governments in Romania, Poland and other host countries to protect the most vulnerable families on the move.
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Top photo: Alisa, 8, who fled Ukraine with her mother, Vlada, photographed at a transit stop in Romania on March 4, 2022. Vlada says she hopes they can return to their home in Odessa in a month. In the meantime, mother and daughter will make their way to Bucharest, where Vlada plans to continue working as a translator. © UNICEF/UN0601695/Moldovan