UK vows action over hundreds of Ukrainians with disabilities vanished into Russia

The British government has said it is "determined to hold to account" those responsible for hundreds of Ukrainians with disabilities, including children, believed to have been forcibly removed to Russian-held territory and Russia itself, after a special report by The Independent.

In response to the 18-month investigation, the deputy foreign secretary, Andrew Mitchell, called the practice "despicable" and pledged further support to the disabled community in the war-wracked country.

The Independent’s four-article series revealed evidence that since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, people with disabilities have been held incommunicado, in squalid conditions and even forced into adopting Russian passports in order to secure treatment or care. The series reveals other horrific abuses, including that groups were used by Russian soldiers as human shields and deprived of food and critical medicine resulting in death – potential war crimes against the most vulnerable in society.

Russia has repeatedly denied committing any crimes in Ukraine and has portrayed the movement of people as humanitarian evacuations.

“Russia’s forcible deportation of vulnerable Ukrainians is a despicable attempt to erase Ukrainian identity, and with it, Ukraine’s future,” Mr Mitchell said.

“We are determined to hold to account those responsible - Russia must immediately cease these forced deportations and return those it has unlawfully taken from Ukraine.”

He pledged further supporting humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable Ukrainians, including women, children, the elderly and those with disabilities. The UK is one of the largest humanitarian donors to Ukraine and has committed £357 million in assistance since the start of the full-scale invasion.

“The UK will continue to work to ensure vulnerable Ukrainians, including women and children, older people, and those with disabilities, receive the support they need, including by embedding specialist disability expertise and assistive technology as part of our humanitarian response,” Mr Mitchell added.

The fate of the vast majority of the 500 peopleThe Independent tracked remains unknown, but there is evidence that some of the children may have been sent to “re-education camps” to learn Russian language, culture and the Kremlin’s version of history.

The investigation also made clear what life close to the frontline is like for people with disabilities. It zeroes in on the failings of Ukraine’s outdated care system, inherited from the Soviet Union, which relies on systematic institutionalisation from childhood - with conditions are described by UN and EU experts as “appalling”.

The series calls for a paradigm shift in attitudes towards people with disabilities across all conflicts - where international law and protections appear to be failing the most vulnerable.

Gerard Quinn, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities until November, who has extensively worked on Ukraine, said the series painted “a damning picture” of the vulnerabilities that people with disabilities face in Ukraine war and reveals the unique risks faced by them.

Those civilians remaining in frontline areas are largely older people and people with disabilities. Maksym, 33, who was himself was taken from his facility for people with disabilities in southern Ukraine and forcibly taken to Russia, told The Independent people with disabilities are ”often the first to be forgotten and the last to be left behind.”

The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) provides funds to the World Health Organisation to provide assistive technology for people with disabilities, and the Ukrainian Red Cross Society in providing home-based care and disability-inclusive safe spaces.

The FCDO also funds disability-inclusion specialists who work across the humanitarian response to support it to more effectively respond to the needs of people with disabilities.