Vulnerable children constitute a large proportion of the more than 1 million Ukrainians who have fled Russia’s invasion of their country and heavy bombardment of residential areas, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Half a million children, some unaccompanied, have crossed into Poland and other neighboring countries, according to UNICEF, which says refugee minors are at high risk of suffering violence, abuse and exploitation.
Overall, the exodus of Ukrainians is producing what many fear will be Europe’s largest refugee crises since World War II.
In a statement, Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said, “I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one.” For comparison, the UNHCR reported that it took more than three months for 1 million refugees to leave Syria in 2013.
Grandi added, “international solidarity has been heartwarming. But nothing – nothing – can replace the need for the guns to be silenced; for dialogue and diplomacy to succeed. Peace is the only way to halt this tragedy.”
The U.N. is urging nations receiving Ukrainian refugees to identify and register unaccompanied children to help guard against abduction and exploitation.
Most Ukrainian refugees have fled to Poland as well as Hungary, Romania, Moldova, and Slovakia.
Many have to travel long distances under life-threatening conditions within their country to reach the border. Dramatic video filmed Wednesday showed crowds of people on a platform in Kharkiv desperate to board a train to Uzhgorod, a Ukrainian municipality bordering Slovakia.
According to Poland’s Ambassador to the U.N., Krzysztof Szczerski, a “big number” of those crossing into Poland are unaccompanied children. Many Ukrainian parents have stayed behind, especially fathers who are under government orders to remain in Ukraine to defend against Russia’s invasion.