Vulnerable Ukrainian children at risk of illegal adoption

A refugee child from Ukraine upon arrival at the Humanitarian Aid Center in Przemysl, Poland. [EPA-EFE/Darek Delmanowicz]

Following Russia’s invasion, the widespread internal displacement of families in Ukraine has led to a precarious situation for vulnerable children, with reports of forced deportations and illegal adoptions to Russia raising particular concerns.

More than five million women and children have fled Ukraine since the outbreak of the conflict on 24 February.

According to reports by Ukrainian officials, Russia has forced over 150,000 children to leave Eastern Ukraine and enter Russia’s adoption system – although, it should be noted that these figures are based on limited information on the whereabouts of the children.

“In violation of international humanitarian law and basic standards of humanness, Russia is engaged in state-organised kidnapping of children,” said the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in a statement.

Russian media reported that Ukrainian children from the Donbas region are being integrated into their adoption system. Russian ombudswoman Maria Lvova-Belova stressed the importance of placing these orphans, who may or may not have living relatives, in Russian families. 

The Russian parliament is changing adoption laws to accelerate the adoption of these children, said Ewa Kopacz, Vice-President of the European Parliament, during a joint committee meeting of the European Parliament on Thursday (21 April). 

At the meeting, politicians and experts agreed that addressing concerns about the ongoing crisis of illegal adoption, including forced deportations and the lack of refugee registration, requires a more cohesive approach.

“Chaos is the perfect environment for illegal adoption,” said Adrián Vázquez Lázara, chair of the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee.

Theoni Koufonikolakou, the chairperson of the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children, stated that high-risk children need to be identified, and they should be allowed into social institutions and appointed legal guardians to protect them. 

Ukrainian institutional system

The most vulnerable children are those who are a part of the Ukrainian institutional system, which includes orphanages, boarding schools and group children’s homes. Around half of those living in residential facilities have a disability, which increases their vulnerability.

The Ukrainian institutional system differs from that of many other countries, and many children in this system have living relatives or parents, said Anna Krawczak, a researcher of children at Warsaw University. However, their situation means they are unlikely to be travelling to the EU as a refugee with their family and therefore more likely to be separated.

Following media reports of missing groups of children on transport, experts addressing the Parliament committees stressed the need for compulsory registration of all children and their legal guardians entering EU member states, alongside a form of verification that arrangements between children and caregivers are safe.

Meanwhile, some are opposing adoption altogether during this period, as it complicates the process of family reunification should the child have living relatives.

Aaron Greenberg, senior regional advisor for UNICEF in Europe and Central Asia, emphasised the need to halt intercountry adoption during this crisis.

“Adoption is not an appropriate response for unaccompanied and separated children. Children separated from their parents during a humanitarian emergency cannot be assumed to be orphans,” said Greenberg.

The lack of screening for these children and free movement across borders has fueled this illegal adoption crisis, he added.

The EU and adoption

Currently, there are no EU laws on adoption. Family law falls under the remit of national authorities, meaning the EU does not have competences over adoption law and is limited in its response. 

Greenberg said that children should be protected within national childcare systems, not NGOs and private individuals, to ensure accountability. 

“We are in a very unique situation where millions of children have crossed borders without knowing whether or not they indeed need care and protection,” said Greenberg.

In June 2021, the European Council adopted a new scheme to ensure early childhood education and care, healthcare, nutrition, housing, and education, called the European Child Guarantee.

Experts and MEPs now argue that the rights established within this framework should be extended to Ukrainian children in EU member states, to allow for refugees to uniformly access social institutions and protections which are currently not guaranteed. 

Many parliamentarians agreed to use the Child Guarantee funding to provide for these vulnerable children to shield them from illegal adoption schemes through legal protection and increased rights, instead of over-reliance on NGOs or private citizens. 

Report: Lack of EU coordination puts lone migrant children at serious risk

Children who flee to Europe from war-torn regions without their parents have no clear way of escaping abusive or exploitative adults as there are no unified policies in place to protect them, a European Union agency said yesterday (21 December).

[Edited by Alice Taylor/Vlagyiszlav Makszimov/Nathalie Weatherald]

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