Urgent Action: Protect People with Disabilities and Children in Ukraine’s Orphanages

Immediate attention is needed to protect people with disabilities in Ukraine and ensure their full inclusion in international relief efforts. Disability Rights International (DRI) is especially concerned about 100,000 to 200,000 children segregated from society in the country’s orphanages.   Residential institutions are dangerous places for children – especially during armed conflict – segregated from society in orphanages, psychiatric facilities, residential boarding schools, group homes, and other institutions where they are left without the love, care, and protection of a family.   Adults with disabilities are also at great risk in institutions.  As Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s border back in 2014, DRI warned about the need to protect children and adults in the country’s institutions.  That advice is even more urgent today.

In DRI’s report No Way Home: The Exploitation and Abuse of Children in Ukraine’s Orphanages, we documented violence, abuse, neglect, sex trafficking and forced labor in Ukraine’s institutions. The vast number of children in Ukraine’s orphanages have families, and parents would keep their children if they could.  Due to poverty, stigma, and the lack of community supports, DRI found that many parents felt they had no choice but to give up a child.   No Way Home includes detailed recommendations to the government of Ukraine and international donors.

As DRI has documented in this and other conflicts, there is great danger that children and adults with disabilities will be left behind and placed in orphanages or other institutions.   As DRI found in No Way Home, children from war-torn areas during Ukraine’s previous conflict with Russia were moved to institutions in other parts of the country. Other children disappeared over porous borders or into temporary camps. Thousands remaining in institutions in the war zone are especially at risk of being trafficked.

Trafficking and sexual slavery are inextricably linked to conflict […]. Trafficking flourishes in environments created by the breakdown of law and order, police functions and border controls during conflict […]. Women’s United Nations Report

In times of emergency, government authorities and international donors may assume that orphanages are a necessary or safe response. When children are abandoned to institutions, it is tempting for governments or foreign donors to rebuild or refurbish them, leaving children in danger of violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation.  Donors should avoid direct aid to orphanages in Ukraine – or they may inadvertently be supporting human trafficking.

In every humanitarian crisis, concerned outsiders respond to tragedy with actions that take children away from families and communities.  Again and again, girls and boys are mistakenly labeled as orphans and ‘rescued’ from affected areas and taken into orphanages or adopted into new families… this misguided kindness can actually cause significant harm to children and families already suffering from the impact of disaster– Justin Forsyth, Save the Children UK

Article 11 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), requires enforcement of the rights of people with disabilities even during humanitarian emergencies, as set forth in UN Security Council Resolution 2475 (2019) on Protection of Persons with Disabilities in Conflict, and the International Humanitarian Law and the Humanitarian Principles.  This includes the right to live in the community for all people with disabilities, and the right to live and grow up in a family for all children.    The government of Ukraine and Russian occupying forces are now obliged to enforce international human rights and humanitarian law, and proactive steps are necessary to ensure inclusion of children and adults with disabilities in international relief efforts.

DRI cautions the government of Ukraine, occupying Russian forces, and international relief organizations against dumping children or adults with disabilities on the streets or leaving them without supportive care in the community. Where immediate family is not available, extended kinship care or substitute family programs may be supported to ensure safe family-based living for all children.   Governments and international relief efforts should:

  • Ensure inclusion of people with disabilities in all relief efforts, as described by the UN Special Rapporteur on Disability.  Ukrainian and international disability groups must be full participants in rapid response planning and immediate action.
  • Reach out to institutionalized populations of children and adults with disabilities who are particularly at-risk of abandonment in institutions; even before the war, the exact number and place of residence of all children and adults in institutions were unknown, so proactive steps are needed to identify and protect them.
  • Relief should be directed to family inclusion efforts and not to perpetuating care in the inherently dangerous facilities where children are kept.  Relief agencies should never separate children from families and should make efforts to provide connects to family and community children who have become separated
  • Protect families who have children or relatives with disabilities so that they do not have to leave behind or give up children with disabilities.
  • Support organizations of persons with disabilities in Ukraine, including organizations of families of children with disabilities,who are best positioned to understand and respond to the needs of their members. 
  • CONTRIBUTE TO DRI protect children with disabilities in Ukraine.  We are working to ensure children and adults put away in institutions are not forgotten.  We need your support more than ever.