How War Trapped Ukrainian Orphans

More than 100,000 children in Ukraine live in the care system, the highest number in Europe.

How War Trapped Ukrainian Orphans

More than 100,000 children in Ukraine live in the care system, the highest number in Europe.

Babies from the Regional Orphanage 3 in the city of Kharkiv being evacuated to the west of the country.
Babies from the Regional Orphanage 3 in the city of Kharkiv being evacuated to the west of the country. © Kostiantyn Zemlianskyi, Executive Director of the Kharkiv Regional Orphanage 3.
Saturday, 15 October, 2022

As fears of an imminent Russian invasion grew in early 2022, Kostiantyn Zemlianskyi, the director of Regional Orphanage 3 in the city of Kharkiv, began planning how best to protect the children under his care.

“On February 24, I planned to check how serviceable the basements were in our orphanage, in case a major war would start,” he said. “That day, I was woken by explosions.”

The war had begun and the eastern Ukraine city – just 40 kilometres from the Russian border – was on the frontline.

“I came to work immediately,” the 47-year-old continued. “Our staff started checking food reserves, medicine, hygiene products, everything we may need to stay in the bomb shelters with children for a period of time.”

After three days of constant Russian shelling, the lights in the orphanage went off and staff had to build a bonfire in the yard to cook hot meals for the children. As the security situation deteriorated, the authorities decided to evacuate.

Kostiantyn accompanied children and orphanage staff first to Poltava, a city 140 km far from Kharkiv, and later on to the west of Ukraine.

“A lot of our kids are babies, so the evacuation train was the hardest part of our journey in the sense of food and hygiene,” he said. “Back in Kharkiv, the kids were crying [in fear]. However, they considered the evacuation to be an outing, so it was easier than expected.”

More than 100,000 children in Ukraine live in the care system, the highest number in Europe according to UNICEF. Russia’s full-scale invasion of February 2022 has left them particularly vulnerable.

With initial efforts to evacuate children from territories occupied by Russia beset by organisational and legal issues, an unknown number have been stranded behind enemy lines. Attempts to arrange their safe passage have also foundered.

Daria Herasymchuk, the presidential commissioner for the rights of children, said that while contingency plans had been prepared for looked after children, events had overtaken them.

This meant that between February and July, only 6,582 out of 105,459 children from state institutions had been relocated.

“Evacuation recommendations in the case of emergency for the family-type children's homes, foster families and institutions were prepared ahead of time,” Herasymchuk said, adding, “However, Russia occupied some of Ukraine’s territory within hours, so we could not even start the evacuation in some regions due to the continuous shelling.”

Serhii Lukashov, national director of SOS Children's Villages Ukraine NGO, said that his organisation had been lobbying for large-scale relocation of children for months.

“Starting from November, we have been sending requests to the cabinet of ministers of Ukraine asking about evacuation preparations,” Lukashov said. “We insisted that children from the east of Ukraine be relocated back in November, but it never happened.”

Some NGOs, including SOS Children's Villages Ukraine, did manage to evacuate children ahead of the February 24 invasion. The organisation initially worked with foster and adoptive families, mostly in the east of Ukraine and the Kyiv region, and have since expanded their efforts.

“We evacuated almost all of our families. All necessary support was organised for those who could not relocate for different reasons,” Lukashov said. “However, we have been constantly receiving requests from other organisations, including governmental, to help with evacuation.”

The situation has been given urgency by reports that Russia was removing Ukrainian children en masse to its own territory for adoption.

Russia’s TASS news agency reported that over 600,000 Ukrainian children had been taken to Russia and would be adopted.

 “These numbers are unfounded, there no lists or documents stating who are those kids, where are they from… nothing,” Herasymchuk stressed.

Ukraine documents all available data on missing children via the Children of War government website. According to official information, 7,671 children have been illegally relocated or deported by Russians.

One issue has been that according to Ukrainian law, children cannot be relocated without their legal representative. This has made moving children in care particularly difficult, with a lack of cooperation from the Russian side further complicating matters.

“Almost all agreements about humanitarian corridors [for orphanages] we proposed have been shot down [by the Russians] or simply not agreed,” said Herasymchuk. “All that is left is to keep in touch with institutions, to control if they have everything needed, and the situation in general.”

While it was harder for state-run institutions to be evacuated en masse, Herasymchuk said that smaller settings were still being encouraged to leave.

She said, “In the case of foster and adoptive families, we urge parents and carers to think about their children and to leave the temporarily occupied territories at the first opportunity, so that the armed forces of Ukraine will be more able to liberate these territories, and it will be much easier and safer for everyone.”

IWPR approached UNICEF for comment, but the organisation did not respond.

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