Children hit twice by the Ukrainian conflict

Halyna Postoliuk and MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt

Brussels, 23 September 2015 – Today at the European Parliament MEPs and civil society organisations propose EU-led solutions to the humanitarian crisis hitting children in Ukraine. Inclusion of the transition from institutional to family-based care, as a priority for EU financial and technical assistance to Ukraine, is key.

Children in Ukraine risk being hit twice. Once by the war, and once by the child protection system’s flaws. A large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), around 1.46 million people including at least 184 900 children, lack basic necessities and adequate support from the Ukrainian Government.

The European Parliament Intergroup on Child Rights discussed these issues today in Brussels at an event titled “The Invisible face of the Ukrainian conflict: the impact on children”. Halyna Postoliuk, our Opening Doors campaign coordinator from Ukraine, was invited, together with MEPs and civil society organisations, to intervene and propose EU-led solutions for children.

“Our meeting today is a call for the European Union not to forget the most vulnerable victims in the conflict in Ukraine: Children. The figures are stunning, the stories are heart breaking. We, Europeans, should do more to protect and help them. We have to do all we can to keep them at the top of the EU agenda” said MEP and co-host Anna Maria Corazza Bildt.

Over 80 000 children are locked up in institutional care in Ukraine. Despite extensive evidence that institutional care is not only harmful to children but also a clear violation of their rights (1) , the Government of Ukraine has been investing in the post-soviet era institutional care. In 2013, they spent 5.7 billion UAH (approx. 240 million EUR) to fund institutions and in 2015 this amount has further increased. To aggravate the situation, a 2014 Government decision abolished 12 000 community social worker positions.

“The worsening economic situation, as a result of the conflict, has pushed 80% of people beneath the poverty threshold. Many are at risk of family separation, unless we take action” said Halyna Postoliuk, Opening Doors coordinator and Country Director of Hope and Homes for Children Ukraine.

The war has also exacerbated the situation of children who are already without parental care. To protect children’s lives, local authorities have removed around 14 000 abandoned children from non-government controlled territories and placed them in different institutions around Ukraine. The majority of these children have parents, with which they have lost contact as a result of the move, with little prospect of reunification. The more than 3 000 children left in institutions in non-government controlled territory are left dependent on volunteer aid donations to get food and clothing.

“The uncoordinated system of international donations is trying to cover the gaps in the child protection system by putting the money into institutional care facilities; these institutions are damaging to the children’s development and health. We should invest in bringing back these children to their families” said Halyna Postoliuk.

The Opening Doors campaign on ending institutional care calls on the EU to solve the root of this problem by including the transition from institutional to family-based care, as a priority for its financial and technical assistance to Ukraine, coherently with the provisions in the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund. We also ask the EU to support the Ukrainian government in its preparation of a long-term strategy to help displaced children and families, including children left behind in non-government controlled area. Finally, we also call for more effective coordination of all types of humanitarian response provided by different donors and key international organisations.

Read the policy brief here.

1. Eurochild and Hope and Homes for Children, Deinstitutionalisation and Quality Alternative Care for Children – Lessons learned and the way forward, October 2014, available here.

Bulgaria should speed up deinstitutionalisation reforms, Human Rights Commissioner says

Despite progress made still more than 2700 children are growing up in institutions.

“Important changes are required to ensure that long-stay residential institutions are replaced with family and community-based services which respect the rights, dignity and wishes of each individual”, says Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in his country report on Bulgaria.

The publication has been put together after the Commissioner’s visit in February 2015. “Children are sent to such places established on the basis of obsolete legislation without a due assessment of their needs and where physical and psychological violence happens regularly. Once they are inside, they lack the necessary protection and are cut-off from quality education, thus reducing their chances of reintegrating into society”, said Mr Muižnieks at the report launch.

Despite progress made, still more than 2700 children are growing up in different forms of institutional caresays Dani Koleva, Opening Doors campaign coordinator and Programme Director at the National Network for Children in Bulgaria, who contributed to the report.

One of the most pressing issues is the overrepresentation of children from families living in poverty, children with disabilities and Roma children. Ending institutional care would be possible if the country invested in prevention of family separation, in foster care and in community services for children.

In Bulgarian institutions “human rights violations frequently occur” says the Commissioner. His report explains that there are different forms of institutionalisation in the country, that the system is outdated and that it should be completely reformed.

Correctional boarding schools, for example, are institutions created in the 1950s where children with so-called “anti-social behaviour” are detained. Originally considered as re-education centers they became places where children lack necessary education and risk to remain locked up for years.

Correctional boarding schools lack an effective methodology for working with children in conflict with the law. We call on the government to strengthen efforts to reintegrate these children back to their families in the first place and to provide children in correctional boarding schools with quality education and healthcare”, Dani Koleva concludes.

Mr Muižnieks also called for a “rapid phasing out” of all the outdated juvenile delinquency institutions, which should be replaced by a system that respects the human rights of children.

Download the report here.


Better public spending, EU Ombudsman’s proposals on ESIF funds

EUOmbudsmanThe Opening Doors campaign welcomes the European Ombudsman’s eight proposals to the European Commission to avoid fundamental rights violation in the spending of “European Structural and Investment Funds” (ESIF) by Member States.

The proposals suggest an increased monitoring of Members States, higher collaboration between the European Commission and Civil Society Organisations, investing in training and capacity building.

Among the fundamental rights issues highlighted, the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly mentioned EU funds spent “to build institutions for people with disabilities instead of community-based living”.

Our Recent Assessment

Deinstitutionalisation of children – meaning the process of replacing institutions with a range of quality care alternatives and measures supporting families – is an ex-ante conditionality on the use of ESIF funds which has not been respected everywhere; as reported in our recent assessment of how EU Member States have used ESIF for strengthening families and ending institutional care so far. In the report, the Opening Doors National Coordinator in Poland raised concerns about the ambiguity of the Polish legislation, which could leave open the possibility to invest in forms of institutional care.

The assessment has also emphasized issues in other countries: according to the National Coordinator in Greece, there is no specific budget allocation for deinstitutionalisation (DI); in Estonia there is no funding foreseen for institutional care, however a lack of investment into quality care and re-training of carers working with children was reported.

The way forward 

For the Opening Doors campaign, the proposals issued today by the EU Ombudsman  are a good way forward: we read in there suggestions like an “online platform where civil society can report fund abuses and violations of the EU Charter of fundamental rights”; a more active involvement of the Commission to avoid fundamental rights violations “by focusing training and capacity building efforts on Member States with a less positive track record in this area”; and “sanctions to be applied when Member States fail to fulfil their obligations”.

We call on the European Commission to follow up on the EU Ombudsman’s proposals and adopt initiatives to ensure that public funds are spent to reduce poverty and tackle social exclusion, particularly in rural and disadvantaged areas, and prevent any use of ESIF funds which is not in line with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

New report on use of ESIF funds for institutionalised children

MEP Maried McGuinnes

The Opening Doors Campaign today released a new report assessing the extent to which EU Member States have used European Structural Investment Funds (ESIF) to catalyse reforms of child protection systems focused on strengthening families and ending institutional care.

Leading experts in childcare reform met in Brussels today at the Opening Doors for Europe’s Children Campaign report launch on the use of European Structural Investment Funds (ESIF) in eight EU countries.

MEPs, European Commission officials and CSOs discussed ways in which EU institutions and national civil society can leverage one another to achieve deinstitutionalisation (DI) reforms.

“We don’t want houses that are institutions, we want homes” said MEP Mairead McGuinness (EPP), Vice-President of the European Parliament. “We know that there are economic issues, but we can’t forget about deinstitutionalisation, which is often forgotten and ignored. Institutionalisation is a problem of all Member States and it is not correct to point just at some states. We are all responsible” she concluded.

The report assesses the attention paid to deinstitutionalisation for children and the involvement of children’s organisations in the ESIF implementation process across eight EU Member States.

It is based on a consultation of eight civil society organisations (Opening Doors National Coordinators) implementing the campaign at EU Member State level – countries include: Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. Opening Doors National Coordinators presented their review of DI in ESIF Partnership Agreements (PAs) and Operational Programmes (Ops) in their countries.

The report results

Overall the results show an encouraging trend. Deinstitutionalisation (DI) remains a priority for investment and is explicitly mentioned in the Partnership Agreements (PAs) and Operational Programmes (Ops) of the eight countries surveyed except Greece. However, only two Opening Doors National Coordinators (in Bulgaria and Romania) were fully satisfied by the level of attention accorded to DI in the PAs and OPs.

Call to the European Commission 

The report calls on the European Commission to adopt an own initiative policy position to increase the level of awareness and Member States engagement in DI reforms. In particular, it calls on the Commission to highlight how the transition to community-level services and family-based care contributes to better use of public money in the long term.

Some worrying results 

There is an overall danger that the current climate of austerity discourages investment of public resources in ending institution-based care systems. For two National Coordinators, the ESIF budget allocation for DI was still unclear at the time of consultation (Hungary and Lithuania), whilst the National Coordinator in Poland felt the budget allocated was insufficient.

According to the National Coordinator in Greece, there is not specific budget allocation for DI. Perhaps, it is not coincidental that Greece is the country where there are the most concerns on DI reforms. The National Coordinator in Greece reported no explicit attention in relevant documents and no earmarked budget for DI due to the singular focus on austerity.

In Poland, the National Coordinator evaluated the wording of the documents as ambiguous, leaving open the possibility to invest in forms of institutional care.

Are CSOs involved in the implementation process?

The extent to which National Coordinators had been consulted during the negotiations of the PAs and OPs varies significantly. In Bulgaria and Romania the National Coordinators appear to have had quite significant involvement and influence, whilst elsewhere the links with government during the negotiation phase were weaker.

In Hungary, for example, involvement of civil society organisations (CSOs) was limited to an online questionnaire.

The National Coordinator in Greece reported a total lack of engagement with children’s CSOs; in Estonia too, organisations representing children were not consulted.

Download the report here

Photo gallery of the launch event


Commissioner Andor wishes for DI to be reinforced for most vulnerable children



Speaking on the occasion of International day for the eradication of poverty, Commissioner Andor has called for the deinstitutionalisation (DI) process to be strengthened, particularly in relation to children with disabilities and children of Roma origin.

Commissioner Andor highlighted the overrepresentation of children from vulnerable groups in institutions: “Roma families can be disadvantaged due to prejudice and school segregation.  The current situation is unacceptable. Children with disabilities are very often concentrated in institutions. Deinstitutionalisation has to be reinforced: we have to make sure that EU financial instruments which serve these purposes are implemented with quality and with concrete monitoring of the changes.”

The Opening Doors campaign welcomes these words confirming that institutionalisation of most vulnerable children is still considered a high priority on the EU agenda.  One of our campaign priorities has been to highlight that, contrary to common belief, the large majority of children placed in institutions are not orphans and call for action.  It is encouraging to see the reality (socio-economic problems and discrimination are main causes of institutionalisation) being recognised by the Commissioner. The Opening Doors campaign will continue to place Roma children and children with disabilities at the centre of the campaign’s work.