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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Tracking Russia's Deportation Of Ukrainian Children — And The Case For Genocide

Russians have been practicing the illegal transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children since 2014. Experts consider it one of the five main signs of genocide, and Ukraine's Office of the Prosecutor General has been working to prove this component of the "crime of crimes."

Photo of a Ukrainian child holding a winter boot and a wooly hat

Ukrainian children receiving warm clothes from UNICEF

Anna Steshenko

KYIV — After the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, the removal of Ukrainian children with subsequent rapid "adoption" or placement in Russian families quickly gained momentum. It is a topic that has recently gotten more coverage after Vladimir Putin paraded several such children from the occupied city of Mariupol at a pro-war rally in Moscow.

But it's also important to see the hard facts — and moral and legal significance — of what has actually happened across much of eastern Ukraine.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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As of the end of February 2023, more than 16,000 children have been illegally deported. A month earlier, this figure did not exceed 13,000. And these are only verified cases. The actual number may be much higher, but it is impossible to establish exact figures now.

In December 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a process for applying for renunciation of Ukrainian citizenship and obtaining Russian citizenship by residents of the annexed regions, which includes provisions for recognizing a child under the age of 14 as a Russian citizen.

This entire adoption campaign appears to be driven from the highest level: recently, Putin met with the children's Ombudsman, Maria Lvova-Belova, and reported that the number of Russians willing to adopt children from the occupied part of Ukraine had increased significantly by 12%. The children's Ombudsman told Putin that with his assistance, she had personally "adopted" a 15-year-old teenager from Mariupol, who had been captured by Russian troops.

What human rights law says

One of the five signs of genocide is the forced transfer of children from one group to another. The Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine says it is working to prove the forced "illegal transfer of children from one national group to another," which Russians began immediately after the occupation of Crimea and parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions in 2014.

Yulia Usenko, Head of the Department for Protection of Children's Interests of the Prosecutor General's Office, noted that after the rapid annexation of Crimea, nearly 5,000 orphans and children under state care were then funneled by the Kremlin's 'Train of Hope' project to adoption in Russia. "Unfortunately, the fate of these children is unknown," she said. "But then this process of illegal displacement or deportation became widespread after February 24, 2022."

The most difficult situation is with orphans. We have no contact with foster families.

Usenko said Moscow continues to say that they are "saving our children" by illegally transferring them to the territory under their control or to Russia. "But they destroy their national identity there, violating the Convention on the Rights of the Child and international law," she said, adding that the numbers are increasing. "The most difficult situation is with orphans. Up to 1,000 more children remain in the occupied territory. We have no contact with some foster families and family-type orphanages to understand their whereabouts. But we don't know how many more children have become orphans."

Russians speak of more than 733,000 deported children. According to Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, this is an exaggeration. Prosecutor Usenko explains this because Russian propaganda media publish information about the so-called evacuated children. But there is no evidence of this.

The Russian Federation does not provide any international organization or state, let alone Ukraine, with information about who these children are, where they are from, with whom, where, and in what conditions they are now.

The victims of murder and rape

Unfortunately, for some children, deportation is only the beginning of their suffering. Juvenile prosecutors on a specially created platform, "Children of War," report daily on the number of war crimes against Ukrainian children after the full-scale armed aggression of the Russian Federation. All of them are recorded under the general article of the Criminal Code 438 on war crimes. In the future, the Prosecutor General's Office promises to structure and reclassify the entire list (more than 69,000 war crimes). The illegal transfer and deportation of children may be qualified as one of the components of genocide.

Currently, 13 UN resolutions identify six grave violations of children's rights in armed conflict: recruitment and use of children, abduction, killing, maiming, rape or other forms of sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access.

All of this is being recorded in Ukraine. According to official information, as of the end of February, nearly 1,500 children were affected, about 500 were killed, and more than 900 were seriously injured. The destruction of schools, kindergartens, homes, rehabilitation and extracurricular education centers also falls under war crimes. The bitter truth is that these figures are constantly growing.

"Such data is not final, and we cannot access the occupied territories. But if we take Mariupol alone, the number of children killed is many times higher. When we talked to people who could leave Mariupol, we received evidence that many children, women, and the elderly were in the Drama Theater. Therefore, only after the liberation of our territories will we be able to give figures close to reality," suggests prosecutor Usenko.

Photo of a doll found in the rumble of an apartment block in Dnipro, Central Ukraine

Doll found in the rumble of an apartment block in Dnipro, Ukraine

Valentyn Reznichenko/ZUMA

Rape of children aged 4 to 17

Back in October, in an interview with Livy Bereg, another prosecutor of the Prosecutor General's Office for sexual violence cases, Iryna Didenko, spoke about such crimes against children as young as four. Unfortunately, there are more and more cases.

"As of today, 11 criminal proceedings are under investigation involving girls aged 4 to 17. These are rapes and other forms of sexual violence (forced nudity, genital torture). In half of the recorded cases, the child's mother is also a victim. We will learn about them when we liberate the occupied territories," Usenko says.

The topic of sexual violence is one of the most sensitive because of the fear of judgment. And because of the fear that the occupiers will return. In most cases, victims of sexual violence, not only women but also men, do not want to recall their suffering.

The Office of the Prosecutor General has a special department and mobile teams of prosecutors, psychologists, and doctors who primarily help victims rather than interrogate them.

Returning home

As of the end of February, Ukraine has returned only 307 children. The Prosecutor's Office, together with the Security Service of Ukraine, is establishing the circumstances of their stay in the Russian Federation.

Changes in surnames, dates of birth, and the secrecy of adoption make it impossible to find children.

"With each return, we receive more and more information that these children have already been placed in Russian families. Changes in surnames, dates of birth, and the secrecy of adoption make it impossible to find children without the voluntary cooperation of those who abducted our children. There are facts of placement under guardianship, the so-called temporary placement, where a child is assimilated into Russian society," emphasizes Usenko.

Upon return, each child undergoes a medical examination, including a psychologist, receives social services, and has time for rest and stabilization. Then work begins with the child's guardians or with the child himself.

"They are all deeply traumatized by the deportation. That's why we work together with psychologists not to harm. It is important for us to find out all the details, starting from the moment of deportation or displacement, ending with what they talked about and what narratives were imposed," the prosecutor emphasizes.

According to her, in each case, employees of Russian social services told the children the same thing: "You will have new parents very soon."

For example, the story of a 16-year-old boy without Ukrainian parents, who was first moved to occupied Donetsk, is illustrative. There, the occupiers formed a group of children who were deported to the Moscow region. The Russian children's Ombudsman personally met with them and "tried for a long time to assure them of one thing — a happy life is possible only if they link it with the Russian Federation. They will have new families. They hear accusations about Nazis and other propaganda."

Another heartbreaking story: two sisters who lost their mother and brother in Mariupol were first moved to occupied Donetsk and then issued Russian documents. "Fortunately, the older adult sister started looking for them. Together we managed to return the children. The younger girl (8 years old) is still in a difficult condition. More than six months have passed, but we have not been able to communicate with her. Psychologists warn that she is still experiencing those events very hard. And any conversation about them could harm her," the prosecutor explained.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

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photo of two soldiers advancing at daybreak

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Updated September 22, 2023 at 6:35 p.m.

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