Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had “devastating” consequences for children in residential institutions with thousands transferred to occupied territories or into Russia, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
In the report released on Monday, the watchdog also said the war highlighted the urgent need for reform in Ukraine, which had more than 105,000 children in institutions before the invasion, the largest number in Europe after Russia.
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“This brutal war has starkly shown the need to end the perils faced by children who were institutionalised,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at the New York-based organisation.
“Returning children who were illegally taken by Russian forces should be an international priority,” he added.
Thousands of children have been transferred to Russia or occupied territories, according to the report.
“Human Rights Watch has documented Russia’s forcible transfer of children from Ukrainian residential institutions. Inter-country adoption is prohibited during armed conflict; the forcible transfer of civilians from occupied territory is a war crime.”
It added 100 institutions that had housed more than 32,000 children before 2022 are now in territory under Russian occupation.
According to the HRW report, Ukraine has attempted to reform the system for more than two decades, but the number of children’s institutions has only grown – from 663 in 2015 to 727 in 2022.
Many more children will be left orphaned or separated from their parents as a result of the war.
“Children are being newly institutionalised, including children whose parents were killed and wounded, as well as whose parents experienced mental health crises due to the war,” the watchdog said.
In September, the United Nations discussed allegations that Russian forces had sent Ukrainian children to Russia for adoption as part of a larger-scale forced relocation and deportation programme.
Ilze Brands Kehris, assistant UN secretary-general for human rights, told a meeting of the UN Security Council that Russian forces are also running “filtration” operations in which Ukrainians in occupied territories face systematic security checks that have involved “numerous” human rights violations.
“There have been credible allegations of forced transfers of unaccompanied children to Russian-occupied territory, or to the Russian Federation itself,” Kehris said.
Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya at the time rebuffed those allegations calling them “unfounded”, and accused the West of trying to besmirch his country.
Nebenzya said what was labelled “filtration” was simply registering people coming to Russia.
“As far as we can judge similar procedures are applied in Poland and other countries of the European Union against Ukrainian refugees,” he told the Security Council in September.
He added more than 3.7 million Ukrainians, including 600,000 children, have gone to Russia or Russian-controlled separatist areas in eastern Ukraine, but they “aren’t being kept in prisons”.
The 55-page report also highlighted other problems, including the mental trauma of the displaced children and neglect and inadequate care because of a lack of caregivers.
“Many children in institutions had to shelter for weeks from bombardments in basements without electricity or running water, including children with disabilities,” the report said.
“A group of children from an institution in Mariupol did not speak for four days after they were evacuated to Lviv in March 2022.”
A two-year-old boy from an institution for children with disabilities in the central city of Kropyvnytskyi “was in a basement for eight weeks”, and when he was evacuated “he smelled like earth”, a caregiver in Lviv told HRW.
The watchdog also said thousands of children from institutions had been displaced abroad, and some remain unaccounted for.