Disabled children abused in Ukraine’s orphanages, warns UN

Disabled children are being abused and neglected in institutions across Ukraine, UN experts have warned.

The human rights officials said the war had made their situation even worse and called on the Ukrainian government to right its “historic wrongs”.

Their statement comes after a BBC News investigation uncovered widespread abuse in the country’s orphanages.

There were more than 100,000 children and young people living in institutions before the war.

When Russia invaded in February, thousands of disabled people were removed from the institutions and sent back to their families.

The UN experts say that they were left without any appropriate support, putting them at risk of further abuse, a life on the streets or becoming victims to trafficking.

However, thousands are still living in Ukraine’s vast network of nearly 700 institutions. Even though these places are called “orphanages”, 90% of those who live there have families.

They are casualties of a Soviet-era system that encouraged parents to give their disabled child up to the state.

There was, and still is, a belief by many in Ukrainian society that disabled children receive better care in an institution.

Child in a cot
Image caption,

The BBC met this teenager, suffering from severe malnourishment, during our investigation in June

One of the experts, Gerard Quinn, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, said this was a problem that long predated the war – and it was time for Ukraine to press a “reset button to the future”.

“All wars reveal historic wrongs in the heat of the moment, and institutionalisation is one of those,” he said.

“It is time to act, to press a reset button to the future. In doing that we need a clear commitment from the Ukrainian government to end its system of institutionalisation.”

He said that as Ukraine rebuilds, disabled people need to be a priority – and those countries and organisations which will help fund that need to put money into community support, and not into furthering the life of institutions.

In June, BBC News visited five orphanages in the south of Ukraine and found teenagers tied to benches, adults living in cots and severely malnourished children.

In one institution we met 18-year-old Vasyl Velychko, who was tied to a bench and left to rock back and forth for hours, screaming.

His parents were able to visit but accepted that this was how he was cared for.

They wanted to take him home, but a lack of support in the community had left them with no choice but to give him up at the age of five.

Image caption,

Vasyl was screaming after being tied to a bench for several hours

His institution was just one of many which had accepted disabled children who were fleeing the fighting in the east.

BBC News interviewed the directors of some of those facilities, who said they were unable to cope with the influx of evacuees. One director simply admitted he was unable to meet their needs.

Many disabled children living in institutions were also taken to neighbouring countries such as Romania and Moldova, which have taken major steps in abolishing their system of institutionalisation.

The UN experts said they had evidence that Ukraine was only allowing these countries to support its disabled children if they were kept in an institutional setting.

“Third countries have a heavy responsibility to assist Ukraine to have a better future for its citizens, including children with disabilities,” they warned.

They acknowledged that the war had placed a great strain on the country – but insisted the tens of thousands of disabled children trapped in facilities where there is widespread abuse, neglect and restraint needed to be supported to live with their families.

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