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A child walks down a hallway of a residential institution where he is staying, April 8, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine. © 2022 Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • The Ukraine war has had traumatic and devastating consequences for children in residential institutions, including forcible transfers to Russia and separation from their families.
  • The impact on institutionalized children points out the urgency of the need to remove them from institutions and provide support for family and community care.
  • Children sent to Russia should urgently be brought home, and Ukraine should urgently map the whereabouts of all children from institutions and ensure their well-being.

(Berlin) – The war in Ukraine has had devastating consequences for children in residential institutions, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Children have been forcibly transferred to Russia and separated from their families, and have suffered traumatic experiences of war and displacement.

The 55-page report, We Must Provide a Family, Not Rebuild Orphanages,” documents risks to children from institutions in areas directly affected by the conflict as well as those evacuated to other areas of Ukraine or to European countries. According to government figures, Ukraine had more than 105,000 children in residential institutions before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, the largest number in Europe after Russia. Nearly half were children with disabilities, according to UNICEF. Russia bears responsibility for the crisis facing these children, but the war adds to the urgency for Ukraine, with support from foreign governments and humanitarian agencies, to stop institutionalizing children and expand family- and community-based care.

“Ukrainian children who were housed in Soviet-era institutions now face extreme risks due to Russia’s war on Ukraine,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “There needs to be a concerted international effort to identify and return children who were deported to Russia, and Ukraine and its allies should ensure that all children who were or remain institutionalized are identified and provided with support to live with their families and in communities.”

Human Rights Watch visited 12 children’s institutions in the Lvivska region and three others in Łódź, Poland, where Ukrainian children and staff were evacuated from areas directly affected by hostilities, and interviewed Ukrainian and Polish government officials and civil society groups.

Human Rights Watch has documented Russia’s forcible transfer of children from Ukrainian residential institutions to Russia or Russian-occupied territory: a war crime. Based on Ukrainian government data, 100 institutions that had housed more than 32,000 children before 2022 are in regions under partial or total Russian occupation and which Russia stated, falsely, that it had annexed in September 2022. Statements by Russian authorities, Ukrainian activists and lawyers, and news reports indicate that at least several thousand children have been forcibly transferred to other occupied territories or to Russia.

Russia’s parliament changed laws in May 2022 to enable authorities to give Russian nationality to Ukrainian children, facilitating their guardianship and adoption by Russian families in Russia. A Russian adoption website lists children from Ukrainian regions, and Russian officials have said that hundreds of Ukrainian children have been adopted. International standards prohibit inter-country adoption during armed conflicts. In a joint statement, Human Rights Watch and 42 other organizations condemned the forcible transfers and adoptions, and called on Russia to grant the United Nations and other impartial agencies access to identify these children, monitor their welfare, and facilitate their return to Ukraine.

Many children in institutions had to shelter for weeks from bombardments in basements without electricity or running water, including children with disabilities. A group of children from an institution in Mariupol did not speak for four days after they were evacuated to Lviv, in March 2022, apparently due to trauma, one volunteer said. Staff at another institution coached older children to carry younger children to the basement when air-raid sirens sounded.

Children who were evacuated elsewhere in Ukraine could not escape the war. In April 2022, Anton, 16, who was evacuated from an institution in the Luhanska region to another one in Lviv, woke up to paint falling from the ceiling from a nearby cruise-missile attack. Remnants of the munitions landed in the yard. One remnant landed in the kitchen, between the cook’s feet, staff told Human Rights Watch.

More than 9 in 10 children in Ukraine’s institutions have parents with full parental rights and were institutionalized due to their families’ poverty or difficult life circumstances, or because the child has a disability and institutions were mistakenly presented as the best option. In reality, as Ukrainian officials have acknowledged and as decades of studies have shown, institutions are inherently harmful to children. Human rights law calls for the deinstitutionalization of all children including during armed conflicts.

After the Russian attacks began, most children from institutions were sent home to their families, and thousands were evacuated to other institutions; but thousands remain unaccounted for whose needs should be urgently assessed. With international support, Ukraine should urgently map the whereabouts of all children from institutions and ensure their well-being, Human Rights Watch said.

In cases where children remained in institutions and were evacuated, often only a handful of institutional staff were evacuated along with children. Staff were exhausted from working around the clock without relief for weeks or months, and were sometimes “picked [for evacuation] just because [they were] there at the time,” said Galina, a former administrator who had not previously provided child care.

When children were evacuated abroad from institutions, some were not registered during the chaotic mass refugee flows of the war’s first weeks, siblings were separated, and children were temporarily unable to get education and social support. European countries should forge agreements with Ukraine to uphold the best interest of the child in all cases.

Ukraine insists that children evacuated from institutions must remain together abroad, posing logistical problems for countries that had de-institutionalized. In Poland, where laws prohibit facilities from housing more than 14 children, volunteers had to refurbish old orphanages to accommodate displaced Ukrainian children. Ukraine says the requirement is meant to ensure the children are cared for responsibly and return home after the war. But those goals could be achieved by registering and checking on children in family-like settings, Human Rights Watch said.

Since 2005, Ukrainian governments have pledged to deinstitutionalize and place children with families or in family-like settings, but the reforms faltered and the number of institutions actually increased. The current government, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have acknowledged the need for deinstitutionalization under Ukraine’s plans to join the European Union. Ukraine and its allies should realize this goal and support all children from institutions – including children with disabilities – to be cared for with their families or in family-like settings, and ensure that funding does not support institutions.

“This brutal war has starkly shown the need to end the perils faced by children who were institutionalized,” Van Esveld said. “Returning children who were illegally taken by Russian forces should be an international priority, and Ukraine and its allies can and should ensure that all children in Ukraine enjoy their rights to live in families, not institutions.”

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