Guidance for protecting displaced and refugee children in and outside of Ukraine
How authorities, humanitarian groups and volunteers can help ensure children displaced by the war are protected and supported until a safe voluntary return becomes possible.
1 November 2022
The war in Ukraine has had a devastating impact on children and led to the fastest and largest displacement since WWII. Children and their families have been forced to flee their homes – some seeking safety in other parts of the country, others taking refuge in neighbouring nations. Roughly half of those displaced are children. Among them, many are unaccompanied or have been separated from their families, sometimes finding themselves across lines of control or in different countries than their caregivers.
Children displaced in and outside of Ukraine are at heightened risk of violence, exploitation, and abuse. Unaccompanied and separated children – including those evacuated from institutions – have unique rights and protection needs that should be recognized and fulfilled. Authorities – both in Ukraine and host countries – need to continue to work together to ensure children can be evacuated from situations that could cause harm and seek safety in environments that allow for the realization and enjoyment of their rights. No action should prevent eventual family reunification and return when it is found to be safe and in children’s best interest to go home.
1. What risks do children displaced by the war in Ukraine face?
Whenever children are driven from their homes by conflict, their exposure to danger escalates. This is particularly the case for children separated from their parents or caregivers. As fighting continues, they have few – or no – options to move through safe pathways, whether on their own or with their families.
While in flight or when arriving at their destination, children face threats to their protection, safety and well-being. In transit, children may be exposed to grave violations against their rights, including the risk of being injured or killed by weapons and explosive munitions. They may be caught up in violence, while cut off from essential medical care, clean water and food. Children may be involuntarily moved or relocated—sometimes to areas far from their home, community, or family. They may have challenges in accessing resources and essential services and are at a heightened threat of abuse, violence, and exploitation, with children outside of parental care or unaccompanied at greater risk of human trafficking and child labour. Displaced women and girls are especially at risk of gender-based violence when sheltering or seeking asylum.
The war in Ukraine is exacting a harrowing toll on children. UNICEF is on the ground in Ukraine and refugee-hosting countries, scaling up life-saving support for children and their families.
2. Are any of these children unaccompanied?
Many displaced children in and outside of Ukraine are unaccompanied or have been separated from their parents, family members, or legal guardians. Children without parental care and children with disabilities face a higher risk of family separation, violence, abuse and exploitation. Without an adult to take care of them, children who are unaccompanied may have challenges navigating border crossing and asylum procedures. This makes them more vulnerable to smuggling, trafficking, or other forms of exploitation. Children without parental care or who are unaccompanied may also be at heightened risk of adoption which should never occur during or immediately after an emergency. When these children move across borders with limited child safeguarding measures in place or limited capacity of responders at borders to identify specific risks for vulnerable children, the threats multiply.
Unaccompanied and separated children who have crossed international borders, should be assigned a legal guardian who is able to support them in navigating the support and rights they are entitled to. This will include recognizing an existing care arrangement (where possible and appropriate), or identifying a suitable alternative care arrangement for the child while initiating family tracing and reunification procedures.
3. What’s happening to children in institutional care?
Nearly 100,000 children, half of them with disabilities, lived in institutional care prior to the escalation of violence in Ukraine. Many of these children have living relatives or legal guardians. In the first 7 months of the conflict, 38,800 were returned to their parents or other legal guardians. 1,611 were relocated to other areas inside Ukraine. At least 6,000 sought safety in Ukraine or in EU countries and Turkiye. Officials have indicated that between 2,000 to 3,000 children from institutions had been received in non-government-controlled territory and the Russian Federation, though UNICEF is unable to verify the exact figures.
As institutions seek to move children to safety in neighbouring countries and beyond, it is critical that special measures be taken in the best interest of the children, that the consent of their parents or guardians be granted, and that any such movement is in line with Ukrainian authorities’ directive and procedures on relocating or evacuating children in institutional care. Moving children to safety must not hinder their prospect for family reunification in the future. Under no circumstances should families, including siblings, be separated as a result of relocation or evacuation movements. All stakeholders should assume these children have families and work together on swift and safe family tracing and reunification. Host countries should uphold recognition of appointed Ukrainian guardians (as per the 1996 Hague Convention), while ensuring that children are registered in the national child protection system and benefit from the range of rights they are entitled to as refugees.
4. How should institutions and care facilities in Ukraine move children to safety?
Recent intensified attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine will have profound impacts on children’s access to basic services over the coming months. Humanitarian evacuations of some children living in institutions may be necessary and lifesaving. Those legally responsible for children in institutions in Ukraine must ensure that such evacuations are done in line with national authorities’ instructions. The Government of Ukraine has issued clear directives to all child-care facilities, including residential care and boarding schools, on how to organize necessary evacuations. As far as possible, children should be evacuated with their identification papers and case files.
To provide maximum protection, UNICEF calls on all those legally responsible for children in institutional care to:
- Comply with Ukrainian authorities’ instructions for the evacuation of care facilities, particularly with Procedure 166, which contains specific requirements for movement, including how many adults need to accompany groups of children and how to protect children with disabilities.
- Engage with children’s parents/family where possible and report the movement of children to competent authorities in Ukraine and countries of transit and destination.
- Designate a known and trusted adult to be responsible for children and who will also carry a copy of their identification papers, a recent photo of the child, and a copy of each child’s case file, including information about their family, history, care needs and special needs.
- Ensure that all children are carrying their identification papers and case file – which should include information about their family, history, care needs and special needs – as well as contact information for a responsible adult, in case children get separated while travelling.
- Cooperate with competent authorities to enable swift and safe reunification with parents when in the child’s best interests, and the provision of temporary, safe and appropriate care in the meantime.
- Ensure children are not separated from their siblings in transit or upon arrival to their final destination, if jointly evacuated.
5. What should neighbouring countries do to protect unaccompanied children, including children evacuated from institutions?
UNICEF, together with UNHCR, urges all neighbouring and impacted countries to ensure the immediate identification and registration of unaccompanied and separated children fleeing from Ukraine, after allowing them access to their territory. Registration includes four relevant components: 1) registration at the border upon arriving in a neighboring country; 2) registration in the national child protection system of the host country so they have access to all of the support available to them within that system including support to their Ukrainian guardians; 3) registration (where appropriate) for family reunification; and 4) registration for the temporary protection directive or other forms of applicable international protection. Permanent legal procedures – such as changing or acquiring additional nationalities – should not occur during or immediately after a conflict.
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. The current emergency necessitates rapidly expanding the capacity of emergency care arrangements with screened caregivers. This is crucial for unaccompanied and separated children who need temporary care while reunification efforts are underway. Per UNICEF guidelines, family-based and community-based care should be promoted in these circumstances, with institutional care being used only as a last resort and for the shortest duration possible.
Specifically, neighbouring and impacted countries should:
- Establish and strengthen screening processes to identify unaccompanied and separated children at the borders and at key reception points in the country of destination or transit.
- Register the arrival of unaccompanied and separated children – including those evacuated from institutions.
- Establish and implement procedures to support guardians in exercising their obligations in the country of transit or destination. Where the guardianship arrangement does not meet child protection standards in the host country, additional caregivers, social workers or guardianship support from Ukraine may need to be put in place.
- Register children in the national child protection system and provide access to family tracing and reunification services (as appropriate).
- Maintain safe spaces for children at border crossings and other strategic sites, where children can be referred and provided immediate support from social workers and child psychologists.
- Link safe spaces with national child protection systems, and rapidly expand the capacity of emergency alternative, family-based care arrangements and other critical child protection and gender-based violence services, including family tracing and reunification services.
- Establish child safeguarding procedures to prevent violence, exploitation and abuse of children throughout the displacement, care and family tracing processes.
6. Can children fleeing the war be adopted?
Children separated from their parents during a humanitarian emergency cannot be assumed to be orphans and are not available for adoption. For this reason, adoption should not occur during or immediately after emergencies. Children have a right to an identity, including the right to know and be cared for by their parents. Until the whereabouts of a child's parent(s) or other close family members can be verified, each separated child – even those who were living in residential care before the war – is considered to have living close relatives. Every effort should be made to reunify children with their families when suitable, if such reunification is in their best interest.
Governments have a duty to respect the right of each child to preserve his or her identity, including family relations and nationality. Existing international protection instruments are available for this purpose, whereas procedures that go further by changing or conferring nationality to unaccompanied and/or separated children, can lead to a violation of this right and place them at risk of illegal adoption.
Intercountry adoption should only be considered once – in consultation with authorities in the country of origin – all family tracing and reunification efforts have been exhausted and the pursuit of all appropriate national alternative care solutions, including kinship care and national adoption, have been unsuccessful.
UNICEF supports intercountry adoption only when pursued in conformity with the standards and principles of the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions. In an emergency situation, it can be near impossible to ensure that the standards and safeguards of the convention are respected. This escalates the risk of child abduction, sale, or trafficking, and illegal adoptions.
7. What about children transferred to the Russian Federation?
A significant number of unaccompanied and separated children – including children from institutions – have reportedly arrived in the Russian Federation. The figures cited by authorities vary, and UNICEF has not been able to independently verify them. Various authorities report that thousands of family reunification requests have been filed – an indication of the scale and need for concerted efforts to facilitate and expedite reunification across the line of contact. In the interim, no actions should be taken that undermine children’s opportunity for family reunification, and eventual return.
UNICEF has received these reports and engages with both Ukrainian and Russian officials to seek greater clarity on the profiles and needs of separated and unaccompanied children, to identify opportunities to support them in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. UNICEF has shared legal and technical guidance on the identification, registration, and reunification of children with authorities. We have underscored the criticality of upholding the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1996 Hague Convention as the normative framework for supporting children. We will continue to offer support to all authorities to ensure children’s best interests are fully understood and remain at the center of decision-making.
8. Is it safe for children to return to Ukraine?
Generally, no. The war in Ukraine continues to pose a risk to children, not only in the form of direct physical harm but also through its collateral impact on vital infrastructure like power, water, and other life-sustaining services. For this reason, the government of Ukraine has urged its citizens to remain abroad for the time being if they have found a safe place to be.
When it is safe to do so, returns to Ukraine should be voluntary and based on informed decisions. Whether separated from or accompanied by their parents, children should be provided with accurate, localized and up to date information on the conditions of their home area and be given the opportunity to express their views. The voluntary return of children - including unaccompanied and separated children, and those evacuated from institutions - should only be pursued when the child and parent or legal guardian voluntarily seeks the return, when it is safe and can be done in dignity, and when it is in the best interest of the child.
All decisions relating to refugee children without parental care must be based on an assessment of the child’s best interests by child protection authorities in the country of asylum. In such cases, reunification with family members must take precedence. Where this isn’t possible, family and community-based alternative care arrangements must be prioritized. The principle of family unity means that the child has a right to remain in or return to the care of his or her parents and should be provided with the possibility to be reunified in the country of asylum.
Under no circumstances should host countries forcibly return unaccompanied and/or separated children, including children evacuated from institutions to Ukraine. To do so, would be a violation of International Refugee Law. Neither should government officials encourage, incentivize, or demand the return of evacuated children to Ukraine before it is safe and found to be in their best interest to do so.
9. What are Blue Dots?
“Blue Dots” are UNICEF and UNHCR-supported safe spaces set up along displacement routes to provide children and families with critical information and services. Blue Dots ensure families are aware of their rights as refugees in the host country and help them access health care, education, mental health and psychosocial support and more. They identify and register children travelling on their own and connect them to protection services. Blue Dots also offer referral services to women, including for gender-based violence.
UNICEF and UNHCR Blue Dots are in place in Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Moldova, Romania, Poland, Belarus, and Slovakia in partnership with government and other humanitarian agencies, to protect children on the move and others at risk of exploitation and abuse.
The Digital Blue Dot website provides key information on Blue Dot locations and services provided, as well as digital support to children and families fleeing Ukraine.
10. What about the risk of trafficking?
Many refugees – the vast majority, women and children – arrive in neighboring countries under unthinkable duress. They are hungry, exhausted, distressed and may not speak the local language. These groups are at heightened risk of trafficking in human beings. Amidst the chaos and confusion, they may be unknowingly approached by traffickers who are not seeking to connect them to essential services (like government registration, shelter, health care, education and more), but to exploit them.
Certain groups of women and children are particularly vulnerable. These are the children who were forced to flee Ukraine without their parents, children who are unaccompanied and children who were in institutional care in Ukraine, many of whom are living with disabilities. For women and girls, especially those travelling on their own, gender-based violence, which includes trafficking for sexual exploitation, is a real and harrowing danger.
UNICEF is working with the authorities to protect these groups against the risks of trafficking.
11. How can volunteers and Good Samaritans help protect children from trafficking?
Volunteers and volunteer organizations in and around host communities have turned out by the thousands to welcome refugees and guide them to safety in the earlier months of the war. Many are unregistered, acting in goodwill to link families to accommodation and support. But the outpour of help at border crossings also provides cover for traffickers and other predators seeking to exploit women and children fleeing war.
It is important that host governments and humanitarian actors follow official vetting and registration procedures for volunteers and volunteer organizations to protect children from trafficking.
12. What is UNICEF doing to protect displaced children and their families?
UNICEF continues life-saving operations for children, both in and around Ukraine. Humanitarian actors continued expanding presence in retaken areas in eastern and southern Ukraine, with UNICEF contributing to inter-agency convoys delivering food, water, hygiene kits, shelter material and winterization supplies to thousands of families and children stranded without support for five months.
- Providing vital humanitarian supplies to conflict-affected areas – including medical supplies, surgical equipment, midwifery kits and oxygen concentrators – and trucking in safe water for drinking and hygiene.
- Supporting mobile teams to reach children with mental health and psychosocial support, and protection services.
- UNICEF disseminates information about explosive ordinances and remnants of war through multiple channels, including digital engagement to capture a wide audience. Moreover, support to victims of explosive remnants of war (ERW) is also offered via case management, including access to assistive devices where necessary.
- Operating “Blue Dot” safe spaces at border crossings in neighbouring countries to connect displaced children and families to critical information and services, and identify and register unaccompanied children.
- Supporting national and local partners in Ukraine and neighbouring countries, while working hand-in-hand with UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies.
- Continuing emergency response efforts to address the COVID-19 outbreak