Lost Ukrainian children: War and abductions by Russia overshadow another big issue


In an institution for children with disabilities. Photo UNICEF, licensed under the CC Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Russian president Vladimir Putin for the organized abductions of Ukrainian children. 

This ICC move could cause a discussion about the institutionalized abuse of vulnerable children in Ukraine itself. 

But it didn't.  

A war crime

According to official Ukrainian data, there are 19,514 confirmed cases of forced transfers of Ukrainian children. The children were taken from those Ukrainian territories, mostly in the south and east, that Russia has occupied since 2022, to Russia or the parts of Ukraine that Russia has occupied since 2014. 

The number of children the Ukrainian authorities say have been abducted is constantly changing. Relatives, NGOs, and activists, state bodies are working on bringing Ukrainian children back. On March 21, 2023, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner For Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets reported about 15 children coming home; the next day, the NGO Save Ukraine reported 17 more returned. The number of abducted children according to the government's Children of War website in that period was, however, not lower but higher than several weeks ago

In mid-February 2023 the Conflict Observatory platform funded by the US State Department published a report by the Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale School of Public Health indicating 43 facilities in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea where at least 6,000 Ukrainian children have been held and “reeducated.” 

The forced transfer of people from occupied territory is internationally considered a war crime

It has been widely speculated that the abduction and reeducation of Ukrainian children is part of Moscow's genocidal attempts. More obvious are propagandistic goals within Russia to boost the popular support of Putin's “special military operation” in Ukraine. Russian national TV channels advertise the transfers as the rescue of poor, abandoned, and traumatized children. 

On March 27, 2023, referencing the “unlawful transfers” and citing the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against Russian president Vladimir Putin and the commissioner for children’s rights in the Russian President's Office Maria Lvova-Belova. 

Several days before that, Human Rights Watch (HRW) also published a report emphasizing the forced transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia from residential institutions and calling it a war crime. Some of the children from those institutions have been taken by foster families in Russia. 

It wasn't, however, the main topic of the report that was focused on the problem of Ukrainian residential institutions for children more broadly. 

Epic fails

Ukraine has the second highest number of residential institutions for children in Europe after Russia, HRW wrote. At the time when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there were over 700 institutions of this kind with more than 100,000 children, as stated in the report. 

Contrary to Ukraine's commitment to deinstitutionalization as part of the country's European Union integration process, neither this number of institutions nor the number of children there has been decreasing over the years. In fact, given the constant decrease of the Ukrainian population in general, it has been actually growing, said Marianna Onufryk, deputy director of the board of the NGO Ukrainian Child Rights Network, in an interview with Global Voices.  

For decades, in Ukraine, this institutional system, recognized as harmful to a child's development and wellbeing and dissolved in the majority of European countries, has been notorious for various kinds of abuse. 

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine added numerous additional traumas, with some children suddenly finding themselves trapped by heavy shelling, living in basements, experiencing a lack of food and medicines, or witnessing people being killed.  

In addition, since 2022, Ukrainian residential institutions have experienced a critical shortage of staff, while the number of their inhabitants has grown dramatically, HRW reported. Many children from the occupied and frontline areas have been relocated to already overcrowded institutions in safer regions, the majority of them lacking space for proper accommodation and facilities and specialists to care for children with special needs. 

According to both the HRW researchers and Marianna Onufryk, among those not evacuated have been mostly babies and children with complex disabilities because of the special conditions of transportation they — and the Ukrainian regulations — require. 

Onufryk also confirmed the HRW findings that, in some institutions, directors opposed the evacuation. “To a straightforward question why they objected they answered: ‘If I take children out, where would I work?'”

Lost amid the havoc

One of the most striking parts of this story is that over 90 percent of children in residential institutions in Ukraine — including those adopted in Russia — actually have at least one parent. As stated in the report, out of 105,000 children in those facilities right before the full-scale invasion by Russia, only less than 10,000 were orphans. Of the rest, over a half attended the institutions as schools with daycare.

After Russia attacked Ukraine in late February 2022, non-orphaned children from the residential institutions were sent to their families. This was done without any consideration of those families’ state and needs. In fact, many people who were often unable to take care of themselves were made to take care of someone else in addition, in the midst of a war. 

And as the state and local administrative bodies were caught unprepared by the invasion, the connection with many of the children sent from institutions to their families was lost, both HRW and Marianna Onufryk said.

The majority of families, however, almost immediately sent their kids back to institutions. 

Many new war orphans, as well as children separated from their parents living in newly occupied territories or captured by the Russian forces and children from rapidly impoverished families have been gradually joining them. “There have been several cases when after children were evacuated an institution became full with new children almost immediately,” Onufryk said. 

Residential institutions have demonstrated impressive survival capabilities. There have been, for example, cases of forging documents that show the frequency of parents’ visits so they would not be deprived of parental rights. Frequently, the health conditions of children are faked, which was also revealed in the HRW research. This makes the adoption of certain children in the institutions either impossible or undesired, Onufryk told Global Voices.

At the same time, even if an institution is supportive, it could take up to six years to get a court decision recognizing a child with living but not caring parents as an orphan to be adopted, Onufryk added. 

There are no specialized courts or judges in Ukraine, and the common courts are overloaded with cases as a result of another distorted reform. In 2022, some of them, as well as some governmental structures responsible for children's issues, were paralyzed due to the occupation, military strikes, and chaotic evacuations of staff members. 

In accordance with international norms, in this situation, the state temporarily banned adoptions by foreigners. 

Marianna Onufryk, like other experts in deinstitutionalization issues, pointed out that one of the primary problems with the reform not proceeding and residential institutions for children flourishing in Ukraine is poverty. Several simple measures like daycare for younger children in common schools in addition to hot meals and school buses for kids from distant places would already reduce the overall number of children in institutions by about a half, she said. This would be even cheaper for the state than continuing to pour millions into notorious outdated facilities, Onufryk suggested. The single thing the Ukrainian state and society really lack is political will, she added. 

The emerging attention to residential institutions issues has been distracted since late 2013 when the bloody revolution in Kyiv was followed by the Russian covert military attack in the south and east of Ukraine, lasting eight years until the full-scale invasion in 2022. Citing a yet unpublished research a Ukrainian pollster conducted for SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine NGO, Marianna Onufryk said, that, as a result, the share of people in the country who believe that children suffer in residential institutions decreased from 59 percent in 2018 to 27 percent in 2022. 

With matters of emergency all around, it has been easy for closed institutions with invisible inhabitants, a tiny percentage of the Ukrainian population, to disappear from public view.

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