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Thirty-five years ago, Ukraine made headlines for being at the crossroads of the world’s worst nuclear disaster after the Chernobyl power plant reactor exploded in 1986, releasing tonnes of radiation into the atmosphere.
In the months that followed, more than 130,000 people, including at least 60,000 children, were moved out of a 30-kilometre zone around the disaster site and, over time, 400,000 people were relocated.
Cloaked in a misty radioactive cloud, the fire-blackened side of the power plant was one of the last sights children reported seeing before being spirited away from their homes.
Nevertheless, a generation still grew up with the awful spectre of long-term illness, and many would eventually lose parents to the effects of radiation exposure.
Today, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third week and the Chernobyl nuclear plant ceased to transmit data to the UN’s atomic watchdog after being seized by Russian forces, the world’s eyes are fearfully watching over the fate of the next generation, particularly the most vulnerable among them.
More than 100,000 children in Ukraine live in 700 orphanages in the country – the highest rate of institutionalised children in Europe. Half have disabilities.
Aid agencies are warning of the “grave dangers” facing children living in orphanages in Ukraine, describing the rising absence of staff and decentralised efforts to move minors away from the violence as a worrying “threat to life”.
UK organisation Hope and Homes for Children says many of Ukraine’s 60,000 orphanage staff have fled to be with their own families, leaving thousands of children to fend for themselves.
The charity works globally to eliminate institutional care for children by placing them in supported homes and has been operating in Ukraine since 1998.
HHC staff on the ground have already found some orphanages abandoned.
“Absenteeism is high at the moment, meaning children are having to take care of other children,” chief executive Mark Waddington tells The National from the Romanian border with Ukraine, where the organisation is helping refugees.
While it is understandable that staff have turned their attention to the safety of their families at this time, the charity predicts that without concerted action, many orphanages could run out of food, water and medicine in the coming days.
“These institutions are public buildings and need to be cared for and protected. Some have already come under fire, so there is a very real risk that children will be neglected and in danger,” says Mr Waddington, who is urgently calling for orphanages to be recognised as humanitarian safe spaces.
“We’re appealing to all actors in the war, and liaising with the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. During peace time, Ukrainian children locked up in orphanages were out of sight, out of mind and neglected. This cannot happen during war. They need aid urgently.”
A humanitarian corridor for children?
Ukraine’s former deputy prime minister Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze said on Tuesday that more than 40 children have been killed and 75 children injured during the Russian invasion of Ukraine as civilian deaths climb past 2,000. About half of the two million refugees who have fled the war are children.
Several attempts at ceasefires to open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee Ukraine have repeatedly fallen apart as Moscow’s armed forces continue to attack some Ukrainian cities with rockets even after ceasefire announcements have been made.
Russian forces have already reportedly struck two orphanages in Kyiv, including one in which 50 children narrowly escaped injury when shelling hit their premises and another that was evacuated after rockets flew overhead and the metro station near by was blown up.
Last week, HHC social workers supported the emergency rescue of 70 children from a community centre in the eastern city of Dnipro as Russian troops advanced.
While charities and civilians are mobilising to take vulnerable children away from the escalating violence, others are warning of the long-term consequences of dislocating children from their families and communities.
Don’t dislocate children from the families, experts say
HHC operates in several eastern European countries and has social workers in refugee reception centres on the borders of Moldova and Romania. It is trying to prevent unaccompanied children from being placed in institutions by encouraging emergency foster care and family reunification instead.
In Ukraine, more than 90 per cent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent and often ended up in institutions because their relatives struggled to care for them.
But experts in the field say that with the right support relatives can care for the children, even in times of war.
“If you move children without their parents, or without the safeguarding and safekeeping, then their long-term outcomes are really poor,” says Peter McDermott, chief executive of Lumos Foundation, another UK charity working to deinstitutionalise vulnerable children by providing communities and families with services to support them instead.
The charity has been present in Ukraine since 2013. It says it is “seriously worried” for the children and staff stuck in the “fast-developing crisis” and has been assisting with evacuations when possible.
In Zhytomyr, a region that has been heavily bombed since the start of the war, Lumos has returned 1,500 children in residential institutions to their families and transferred 72 children who had no parental care to family care or other institutions in rural areas that are considered to be relatively safe.
Mr McDermott told The National that every effort should be made to take children out of the war zone with a family member.
It is a “complex message” to deliver to a “very compassionate” public and international development response, but putting children in orphanages should be a last resort.
Lessons learnt from past wars
“We've learnt some really sad lessons about how not to help children or try and help children. And compassion is wonderful but often people don't understand that good intentions can have bad outcomes,” says Mr McDermott, referring to suggestions that a "Kindertransport" – the organised rescue effort of children from Nazi-controlled territory before the outbreak of the Second World War – could be implemented in Ukraine.
More than three decades working with minors in conflict-zones such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Rwanda have shown him that moving children without their parents or proper safeguarding measures comes with long-term risks.
“We obviously want to get children out of the firing line and that's a shifting target … [but] increasingly, children are being separated and taken and then we're really worried.”
These fears are echoed by Unicef who earlier this week said that unaccompanied children were at heightened risk of violence, abuse and exploitation.
“When these children are moved across borders, the risks are multiplied. The risk of trafficking also soars in emergencies,” Unicef executive director Catherine Russell and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a joint statement.
"For children who have been displaced across borders without their families, temporary foster or other community-based care through a government system offers critical protection. Adoption should not occur during or immediately after emergencies. Every effort should be made to reunify children with their families when possible, if such reunification is in their best interest.”
Lumos’s chief executive says children who are being sent to institutions in other countries risk being permanently separated from siblings and their families, increasing their vulnerabilities.
Unaccompanied and institutionalised children are most vulnerable
“Institutions are all too often the default response to unaccompanied refugee children – this must not become the case, and every effort must be made to keep families together.”
HHC says its efforts to eradicate orphanages in Romania over the past two decades proves it is a surmountable task. Over the past 20 years, 90 per cent of the 100,000 children who were previously living in institutions across the country no longer do so.
Mr Waddington says the lack of a centralised and co-ordinated response system to removing and protecting these children is a “real mess” and that without proper tracking and safeguarding measures in place, the risk of permanent long-term damage is high.
All orphanages in Ukraine are under state control but there is no central system monitoring the relocation of children, something HHC is pushing Ukraine’s Ombudsman for Children to do now.
“The lack of an information management system for moving children is so extreme that in my view it is, in and of itself, a threat to life,” he says.
“In spite of repeated requests there is no system in place to track and assess the numbers of children who are moving. Some are evacuating children but they’re not taking the time to properly assess their situations before taking them to other countries.”
HHC’s chief says it’s time for a national mandate to ensure that any children who are moved from institutions are properly registered and are moved only “at the right time and by the right professionals" with a focus on family care and not re-institutionalisation.
"Children should not be limited by being held in institutions and governments in neighbouring countries should not lock up unaccompanied children in harmful orphanages and refugee camps," Mr Waddington says.
There are increasing concerns that a lack of centralised processes puts these vulnerable children at high risk of being trafficked, exploited and “irreversible psychological damage".
Money and effort should, he says, be spent to prioritise emergency foster care and family reunification instead, and that, as signatories of the UN Convention on the Rights of Child, Moldova, Romania and Poland have "a duty to keep children in families, and out of orphanages".
"It needs political will. Saying we are 'doing the best we can' during a war just cloaks a lack of responsibility towards children," Mr Waddington says.
“If the political will is there, the funding will be mobilised and we can ensure children are placed in forms of family care.’