The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine has reached devastating levels as the war enters its third month. Recent data suggests over six million people have already fled the country and sought refuge elsewhere, and an additional 7.7 million are displaced internally within Ukraine.
Reports of thousands of unaccompanied children being evacuated from orphanages around the country have raised alarms by child welfare advocates globally. UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell and United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) High Commissioner Filippo Grandi expressed an increasing concern about the risks faced by this vulnerable group, urging nations to prioritize their protection and safety.
"Children without parental care are at a heightened risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation,” they said in a joint statement. “When these children are moved across borders, the risks are multiplied. The risk of trafficking soars in emergencies.”
Who are these children? Why are they alone? Will the U.S. help support them, and if so, can individual citizens help? This article will address these questions and provide some context on the needs of refugee children and unaccompanied youth who are displaced in Ukraine and around the globe.
Refugee children: A global profile
The world currently has more than 100 million people displaced due to war or violence, the largest number ever recorded according to UNHCR, and half of this number is made up of children. Put simpler, every second displaced person is a child. Numbers of children displaced from Ukraine are thought to be even higher than this global average, due to the conscription of men into the Ukrainian army.
The impact of war and conflict on children is devastating and well-documented. Displaced children suffer the loss of comfort and the feeling of safety. Many experience trauma and witness violence. They carry fear and anxiety of not knowing what lies ahead. Most experience the grief of being separated from the things and people they love.
“War violates every right of the child,” stated international advocate for children's rights, Graça Machel, in her 10-year report studying the impact of conflict on children. In addition to traumatic exposure and loss, she found that children impacted by conflict are more likely to spend months or years outside of school and are more likely to have less access to basic sanitation, clean water, or access to health care. They also often face discrimination, poverty, and gender-based violence.
The chaos of war and displacement increases the chances of children being separated from their parents or caregivers. This might occur during traumatic events, or in the aftermath of conflict. Many children are sent to travel to another country to live with family members. Some are escaping recruitment into a cartel or as child soldiers. Other times, older children choose to travel across a border to help their families in distress or cross a border planning to reunify with family members once their situation has settled.
By definition, unaccompanied children are under the age of 18 who cross into another country alone without a parent or guardian, and without the legal documents to do so. They are a protected class under international law (namely the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) and by specific national laws, which in the United States includes the Flores Agreement and the Trafficking Victim Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA).
Most unaccompanied children are not “orphaned” as they have one or both parents alive who are working on finding a way to keep their children safe. These children have often been cared for by family members or friends for years while their immediate family seeks stabilization. Despite the reasons for separation, the U.S. supports these children regardless of legal status or circumstance.
The U.S. Unaccompanied Children’s programs
The U.S. began resettling unaccompanied refugee children directly from refugee camps overseas in the 1980s, when children from Cambodia and Vietnam had been found living alone after the wars. The program expanded in the early 2000s with its first large-scale operation which resettled more than 4,000 “Lost Boys” (and girls) from southern Sudan, many who had been separated from their families in the chaos of conflict. These children were placed into licensed foster homes across the country and provided intensive case management services through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) program for Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM).
URM services ensure health and mental health needs are met, as well as address educational, cultural, linguistic, and other needs. The URM program continues to place children who have been designated as a refugee or other humanitarian legal status. It is one of two programs within ORR serving unaccompanied children in the U.S., which supported a record number of more than 120,000 children in 2021.
The second program, called the Unaccompanied Children’s program, began in the mid-2000s with the combined passage of the Homeland Security Act, the TVPRA, and the Flores Agreement. These laws required children who were identified as unaccompanied at the U.S. border to be given humanitarian care and shelter and be placed into the custody of ORR within 72 hours. Children live in a network of state-licensed shelters and foster care providers around the country and provided with case managers and clinicians who work to reunify the children with a sponsor—usually a family member—as safely and quickly as possible.
Unaccompanied children are additionally provided medical services, mental and behavioral health care, and services to meet their educational and linguistic and cultural needs. Comprehensive assessments including home studies are made to ensure the environment where the child will be placed is safe and not at risk of trafficking.
Ukrainian children: Special needs
The reports of unaccompanied children being evacuated from Ukraine could potentially pose newer challenges to the global systems supporting and caring for this unique and vulnerable population, including the U.S. systems for unaccompanied children. Ukraine has the highest number of children who are institutionalized in Europe, with some estimates nearing 200,000. Approximately half of these children have special needs, including developmental disabilities and learning disabilities.
School systems in Ukraine are largely unequipped to work with children who have these needs. Thus, the majority of the children living in orphanages are not actually “orphans,” but rather have parents who depend on this support for their children. And while some studies indicate Ukraine was on the path towards deinstitutionalizing their orphanage system and moving into foster care models, years of unrest have potentially destabilized this plan.
Nations across Europe have begun to mobilize their support and protection of these children. The U.S. has increased its humanitarian support for Ukrainians and President Biden pledged to assist 100,000 people fleeing the war. Children from Ukraine might soon begin to arrive in the U.S. system for unaccompanied children, along with more than 10,000 asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the system should be prepared to support their particular needs.
“The impact of conflict on children is everyone’s responsibility,” Machel reminds us, “and it must be everyone’s concern.”