On the occasion of the World Refugee Day on June 20, the human rights NGO Human Constanta organized an online lecture “Vulnerable groups and the war” together with the expert of the Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial Stefania Kulaeva.
At the beginning of the lecture, the expert explained the scope of ADC Memorial’s work related to the refugees. In mid-2022, the UN published shocking data on the number of refugees in the world; for the first time in the history of mankind, it reached 100 million people. This includes the war in Ukraine that had caused a huge wave of migration, an extraordinary phenomenon for the whole region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As ADC Memorial works on protection of the vulnerable groups’ rights in Eurasia, it has special focus on vulnerable groups of refugees, meaning children who need special assistance.
Migration from Ukraine has a specific gender and age dimension
— First of all, I would like to clarify who we consider to be vulnerable groups. In a situation of war, it is very difficult to protect children who have special health needs (those who move in wheelchairs, have serious illness like cancer etc.). We are also talking about children from institutions, both special medical institutions and shelters for healthy children. Protecting children in shelters during the war is also a special challenge. Of course, we have in mind children directly affected by military operations among vulnerable groups (for example, those who lost limbs due to shelling or mines).
When it comes to minorities, for example, Roma or Muslims in Ukraine, they have no special needs, which means there is no need to create special conditions. But it is important to prevent discrimination against them. We always prognose the risk of mistreatment children who can be visually recognised as non-Christians, non-Slavs. These prejudices need to be kept in mind, given this vulnerability of children.
The current migration from Ukraine is special in its definite gender-age face, the expert emphasizes. First of all, women and children, older people leave the country, because in Ukraine, and this is a rare case even for a war situation, men are prohibited from traveling abroad. There are some exceptions related to different categories, including those who travel through Russia and Belarus, but most families are fleeing the war without men.
The EU and other countries accept Ukrainian refugees, but the situation is legally complicated
Another important specifics of this migration, which can be compared with the wars and refugee crisis in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan taking place in recent decades, is that the EU accepted everyone who wanted to get there from Ukraine. It is a unique case that during its existence on such a scale, the EU has received so many people. It is believed that 5 million people have left Ukraine, 2 million have already returned. But anyway, the EU also accepted them, albeit temporarily.
— On the one hand, we did not see the problem typical, for instance, for Afghans, when no country accepts them. You can escape from Ukraine to the EU, Russia and Belarus. Another matter is – under what conditions this departure takes place. Most of the Ukrainian society recognizes some forms of such departure as not entirely voluntary, sometimes even as practices of deportation and practically abduction of children. Legally, it’s all very confusing. Some of the children were taken out of the territories occupied back in 2014. The children have already been granted Russian citizenship, but Ukraine perceives them as citizens of Ukraine. There may be a different opinion inside the unrecognized “republics”, and human rights defenders have to deal with all the complexity of this situation, assessing cases of not only imposed departure, but also imposed citizenship.
As for leaving for the EU, a lot is being done for refugees and female refugees: housing, food, and financial assistance are provided. There is no universal practice, because every European country estimates its own possibilities. However, ADC Memorial records individual cases of disputable attitudes towards vulnerable groups and children. There are cases when children are placed in families, but without much further control. There is practically no state control over this process anywhere. When a person comes and declares that s_he wants to take a child, there may be risks related not only to bad intentions. Sometimes people with good intentions can’t cope with new children in their family. ADC Memorial stands for mandatory psychological assistance to both children and families who take on such responsibility.
To maintain orphanages during evacuation or to place children in families?
— Taking into account the high risks of migration, as part of our #CrossborderChildhoodUA campaign, we are dealing with issues of countering sexual exploitation of refugees and children. This risk always arises when people appeared to be out of their own country, deprived of the usual support and environment. We call for special attention to this aspect.
Another important focus that the ADC Memorial is currently engaged in is the issue of deinstitutionalization vs preservation of institutions. We are talking about different institutions for children. According to modern UN terminology, all boarding schools and orphanages are places of detention. There are recommendations, when possible, to place children in families during evacuation from Ukraine. But it is quite difficult to implement these recommendations urgently, you need to take into account all the risks.
On the other hand, according to Stefania, in most EU countries there are no orphanages at all, all children are de-institualized. And, if you keep closed institutions during evacuation from Ukraine, it will be a forced re-creation of a system that no longer exists in the EU countries.
What are children’s rights and in what documents are they described
The speaker recalled that the rights of children are regulated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention was adopted in the late 1980s and was created mainly by the Eastern bloc countries with the support of the USSR. It still retains strict Soviet features and some points need t have modern interpretation.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child continues to develop the main points of the Convention. The Committee works in a modern way, and Stefania suggests focusing on its current general approaches, with modern formulations to the provisions of the Convention itself.
— In particular, I mean the General Comments on the situation of children in migration. All the modern standards are described there, and these points that we try to take as a basis for our campaign. Moreover, they can be applied to all countries that have signed this Convention.
There are few regional analogues of this basic document, including in the Eastern European region. There is the so called Chisinau Agreement of CIS countries which regulates return children tj their countries of origin.
Why the term “vulnerable groups” needs to be clarified
Stefania stressed that in her understanding vulnerable groups are not just children or adults with special needs. These are children who may be discriminated against, people with disabilities in the context of vulnerability to migration. This is everyone who can be treated worse because of various ethnic, religious, gender characteristics.
— For example, during the war, it becomes dangerous if a person has appearance which differs from the gender marker recorded in the passport. When crossing the border, this becomes a problem. We documented such cases back in 2014. I also want to say that often people define as “discrimination” something that they just don’t like: prohibition of smoking on the plane, requirement to be vaccinated to attend an event. Of course, it is useless to apply such a broad interpretation. There should be a range of grounds for discrimination, usually they are outlined by decisions of the Council of Europe and documents of UN Human Rights Committees. It is necessary to focus on the criteria: gender, racial and ethnic specifics, age, religion. We are looking attentively at these groups.
Additional supportive measures should be provided to overcome vulnerability to discrimination. We can easily see it in many examples of violation of the right to education relevant for millions of children, both in Ukraine and in other countries where the children emigrated. Online learning conditions have been created for many, but not many can use them, especially children from the poorest strata of the population (for example, Roma minority). Most often, they just do not have necessary devices for remoted study of all children in the family, – this was common even before the war. Will they be able to return to school education at all? A special anti-crisis program on the right to education should be developed taking into account these groups.
— Another common problem is a not sufficient competence in Ukrainian of children from the eastern regions of the country, because they speak Russian at home. But in countries that accept refugees, many schools for Ukrainians are opened in Ukrainian, and Eastern Ukrainian children have to learn Ukrainian, which is difficult to do in emigration. When changing all education into Ukrainian, you also need to think about this and somehow prepare children for that, because due to the lack of linguistic environment, some of them have the rick just drop out from education. In general, the refugee situation due to the war in Ukraine showed a completely different attitude of the European Union countries to people who need help. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new approach to the difficult situations in which refugee children from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq had previously found themselves. I would like to believe that such a new approach will apply to all children who need shelter or have become war victims.
The full recording of the lecture is available here. In the description of the video you will also find many useful links on the topic.