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Ukraine tries tracing thousands of ‘orphans’ scattered by war

With nearly 100,000 children dismissed from institutional care, Ukraine and the UN’s UNICEF are still trying to trace some 26,000 of them amidst the wartime havoc.

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Making sense of the numbers of orphans and their status under Russian fire is a daunting task. When Russian projectiles fell on the Ukrainian city of Odesa, some of the orphans from its Orphanage-Boarding School were moved to a safer location following an order from the local government issued in March.

Amidst the chaos that has affected orphans and orphanages in the conflict-ridden parts of Ukraine, Kyiv is struggling to trace the children. As shown by UNICEF, some 26,000 other children still need to be tracked. This is because they were moved outside the orphanage system and usually returned to families or legal guardians, Reuters reported.

The movement slipped through Ukraine’s state record-keeping system, known as UIAS “Children,” which was not capable of tracking it, according to the Government Reform Support project in Ukraine (SURGe), a Canadian government-funded agency contracted by the NSS to help support it. What the system does provide is a database holding general information about children such as whether they had siblings or disabilities, or were eligible for adoption. On the spur of the moment, the team at SURGe began to collect data on the status of children from orphanages using Google forms and Google sheets. It also started working out a data-collection module to add to the database, which began operations in May.

The task is rendered even more trying by the fact that the orphanages come under three different ministries, with responsibility spread across 24 regions, a SURGe spokesperson said.

Child protection workers and international organisations including the UN did not conceal their concern when speaking with Reuters about the lack of information or record-keeping by Ukrainian ministries on the children’s whereabouts. Some might find themselves at the risk of violence or human trafficking, UN officials warned.

War and poverty

Ukraine’s national institution tasked with overseeing children’s rights is National Social Service (NSS). It claims that it had done “everything possible to preserve the lives and health of children and prevent them from being left in the epicentre of hostilities.” The NSS also said that support for families was provided by specialized social services and that it had been working to resolve problems.

On February 24, the day Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine’s network of over 700 orphanages and other boarding schools kept a record of more than 105,000 children. This number translates into just over one percent of the country’s child population – the highest rate of institutionalization in Europe, according to data from the European Union and UNICEF.

As many as 50 percent of the children in Ukraine’s orphanages were disabled, UNICEF data suggests.

Poverty continues as the main reason children are sent into institutions – 80 percent of families fall below the poverty line after the birth of their second child, according to a 2021 study on child protection systems by Ukraine’s former Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Mykola Kuleba, who was in office from 2014 to 2021.

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