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Joining Forces partnership calls for urgent actions to be taken to protect children and their families in Ukraine

ChildFund Alliance
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The war in Ukraine has created a major humanitarian and child protection crisis, jeopardizing the lives of millions of children, tearing families and communities apart, and creating devastating impacts that children will feel for years to come.

Joining Forces, an alliance of the six largest international NGOs working with and for children to secure their rights and end violence against them, is deeply concerned about the plight of the children who are enduring the brunt of this conflict. Indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on schools, hospitals, homes, childcare institutions, and other civil infrastructure are violations of international humanitarian law and we condemn these attacks in the strongest terms.

Due to the ongoing conflict, more than 1.8 million children have fled Ukraine in the last weeks. They are overwhelmingly exposed to traumatic experiences, and many suffer from lack of access to basic and necessary services, including education, health care, food and clean water. Girls, unaccompanied and separated children, children in institutional care, and children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable and at heightened risk of violence, sexual exploitation, abuse and human trafficking.

The conflict is another threat to children’s well-being, following years of the COVID-19 pandemic that has rolled back progress on children’s rights such as increased poverty, disruptions in learning, and reduced access to social service providers.

The Joining Forces partners call for the following urgent actions, which are needed for the care and protection of children and their families:

1 Children must be protected. All parties must fulfill their obligations under international laws relevant to children. Children are not a target. During armed conflict, international humanitarian law provides general protection for children as persons not taking part in hostilities and special protection as vulnerable persons. All parties must fulfil obligations in the promotion of Security Council Resolutions on Children in Armed Conflict, and prevent the recruitment, use, sexual exploitation and sexual violence against girls, boys and adolescents who are at risk of suffering the six grave violations against children in conflict.

2 The immediate cessation of hostilities until a lasting ceasefire is negotiated and there is a pathway to sustainable peace. The ongoing, indiscriminate violence against civilians must stop. Civilians must be allowed to leave for safer areas.

3 Ensure unimpeded, safe and rapid humanitarian access to all those in need across Ukraine. All parties to the conflict must respect, uphold and enforce obligations under international humanitarian law and the Core Humanitarian Standard.

4 Provide humanitarian aid (protection services, food, shelter, medical care, mental health and psychosocial support) to meet the needs of children, their families and/or their caregivers in Ukraine and in neighboring countries. Humanitarian efforts should support and strengthen child protection systems in neighbouring countries and coordinate with the appropriate authorities within Ukraine. Mental health and psychosocial support services aligned with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support are essential in response to the fear, anxiety, and psychological trauma children are facing.

5 Prevent and respond to all forms of violence against children. The care, protection and rights of all children need to be prioritised and all forms of violence against them must be stopped. This conflict has put children and young people, particularly girls, at significant risk of violence. It is essential that urgent support is delivered to provide holistic programs that address violence against children including sexual and gender-based violence. This includes prioritising funding for child protection and gender-based violence sectors, ensuring resources are available for prevention, and responses meet the ever-growing needs of affected children and young people.

6 Take immediate action to protect and provide services for an estimated 100,000 children – a significant proportion of whom have disabilities – living in institutions inside Ukraine. These children need urgent protection from the ongoing fighting. Their specific needs must be met as a matter of urgency, including contingencies for safe evacuation when it is in their best interests and guaranteeing the highest safeguarding standards. These children are located in facilities that may be in areas of active conflict and they may be without the nurturing care and protection of a parent or caregiver, leaving them, and particularly girls, at heightened risk of injury, mortality, exploitation, neglect, violence and trafficking.

7 Ensure no child is unaccounted for: Prioritize an effective interagency data management system in partnership with national authorities to identify, register and enable the referral of children who are separated or unaccompanied, including children who were in alternative care prior to the conflict. This should build on pre-existing initiatives (like the CPIMS+ and ProGres) and be operational both across Ukraine and in reception countries to account for children in/from institutions alongside unaccompanied and separated children, in particular in the case of cross-border relocation.

8 Ensure equitable treatment at borders prioritising the most vulnerable, and ensure that children, their families and/or caregivers are not subject to any form of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, country of origin, gender, age, ability, sexuality or other perceived differences, as well as special protection of unaccompanied and separated children to prevent exploitation and trafficking.

9 Provide protection and quality emergency care to all children and adults fleeing the conflict, with particular care to strengthen protection frameworks, establish family tracing and reunification procedures, and prevent exploitation, abuse and trafficking for children without parental care, children with disabilities, and girls who are at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence. This must include:
(a) The creation of child-friendly spaces where children can play, learn and express themselves as they start to come to terms with the conflict and the impact on their lives;
(b) Immediate access to essential services, including mental health and psychosocial support provided in the language of the children and their caregivers;
(c) Multi-sectoral response programming in line with the Child Protection and Gender-Based Violence Minimum Standards and Minimum Initial Service Package for Sexual and Reproductive Health in Crisis Situations;
(d) Coordination amongst national authorities and international and national agencies to ensure the identification, registration and referral of unaccompanied and separated children crossing borders; preventing the separation of children from their families or primary caregivers; and supporting family tracing and reunification, when it is in the best interest of the child;
(e) Interim alternative care in line with the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children and the Child Protection Minimum Standards. Trained professionals should be ready to support children without parental care fleeing from Ukraine, including foster and residential care professionals, interpreters and psychologists. Authorities and agencies responsible for the oversight of alternative care should ensure regulation and monitoring of care services to meet the best interests and rights of all children.
(f) Provision of cash and voucher assistance to affected families; and
(g) Access to safe, quality education in line with the Safe Schools Declaration outlining a political commitment to protect education from attack and the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. The Declaration and Guidelines have been endorsed by Ukraine.

10 Provide a continuum of care for all children affected by the conflict, linking humanitarian response systems to domestic child protection systems in Ukraine and in countries of transit and destination. Such systems should include measures to support families to stay together; protection, education, and quality alternative care; prioritising family-based care when in the best interests of the child, for children who have lost parental care, and specialised support for girls and children with disabilities. These efforts must connect to longer-term plans to build strong welfare and protection systems.

11 Protect the rights of child human rights defenders who are taking action, as they have the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression, as well as the rights of humanitarian and frontline workers, including those guaranteeing assistance to children affected by hostilities.