The position of the UNHCR on the Voluntary Return to Ukraine of Refugee Children without Parental Care

Earlier this month the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) released their position on the voluntary return to Ukraine of refugee children without parental care. It focuses on unaccompanied children and those evacuated from care institutions in Ukraine. The primary goal of this document is to ensure that the best interests of these vulnerable children are protected and upheld during the voluntary repatriation process.

The document emphasizes that the country of asylum holds the primary responsibility for safeguarding the rights of refugee children within its territory. Ukrainian authorities play a vital role in providing information on the situation and services available in the area of return, as well as the care arrangements for each child. This information assists the competent authorities in the country of asylum in making informed decisions.

Given the volatile and uncertain situation in Ukraine due to the ongoing conflict, the UNHCR calls on States to suspend the forcible return of nationals and former habitual residents of Ukraine. As a result, refugee children without parental care should not be forcibly returned to Ukraine.

It’s also stated that the voluntary return of refugee children without parental care is only pursued under the specific conditions that the child and their parent(s), legal guardian, or caregiver must voluntarily seek the return; or that the return must be conducted safely and safeguarding the dignity, considering the specific needs of the child. Competent authorities in the country of asylum must determine that the child’s best interests align with the return, considering the child’s rights, wishes, the security situation in the proposed area of return, specialized needs, and available services and support in the area of return.

Each decision concerning a child without parental care should be guided by the best interests principle as defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This principle encompasses substantive rights, legal principles, and procedural rules. The decision-making process must be carried out by the authorities of the country of asylum, ensuring the safety of refugee children and those internationally displaced.

The document also states that when the views and wishes of the child, parents, and legal guardian differ, the child is entitled to appropriate legal representation during any administrative or judicial procedures. This ensures that the child’s best interests are formally assessed and represented.

In terms of family reunification for children without parental care, the UNHCR emphasizes the importance of it whenever such is possible and that it is in the child’s best interests. If family reunification is not viable, family-based alternative care should be provided. Institutional care arrangements should only be considered as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. Ukrainian authorities can support informed decision-making by providing essential information about care arrangements, guardianship decisions, and options for the former in Ukraine. They can also facilitate contact and family tracing, assess areas of return, and confirm the availability of essential services. They should establish adequate systems to monitor the situation of child returnees. Social workers should be available in return areas to develop individual care plans, promote sustainable return and reintegration, and ensure placement in family-based care wherever possible.

As stated in the document, the UNHCR stands ready to provide advice and support to States on family reunification and the implementation of procedural safeguards for decision-making on voluntary returns and best interests procedures, in line with legal standards and UNHCR guidelines.

Our organization stands aligned with UNHCR’s position on this very important subject, and as a partner we support through safeguarding the protection of the best interests of refugee children. By adhering to the outlined safeguards and principles, the rights and well-being of these vulnerable children can be preserved and upheld throughout the repatriation process.

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