May 15, 2023
War and Deported Ukrainian Children

The Issue, Response of Ukrainian Civil Society and Government, Contribution of Russian Civil Society, and Way Forward

Overview

This brief examines the issue of the forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens under the age of majority to the territory of the Russian Federation or Ukrainian territories illegally occupied by Russian military.

In the course of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and occupation of several regions, thousands of Ukrainians were captured, abducted or illegally deprived of their liberty, and put through filtration camps. According to the recently established Unified Register of Missing Persons, at least 24,000 Ukrainians are currently missing (the data includes only the information on persons about whom the government of Ukraine has received statements).

In May 2022, the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova reported that Russia had relocated 210,000 children. In October 2022, the Interdepartmental Coordination Headquarters for Humanitarian Response of Russia reported the relocation of 716,214 children (confirmed by Ukrainian sources). On February 20, 2023, Olga Altunina, a representative of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, reported that 14,000 children had been abducted since the start of the war. According to the data reported by the Children of War project, 19,393 Ukrainian children have been taken to Russia.

Based on the definition of abductees as children forcibly and illegally relocated, children whose parents decide to emigrate to Russia or whose families have applied for asylum in Russia, should be excluded from these estimates.

It is impossible to establish the exact number of children, their legal status, and the presence of accompanying legal guardians. Yet, even the most conservative numbers are considered “staggering.” All levels of the Russian government are involved in the perpetration of this crime: federal, regional, and local (acknowledged by Russian government).

The  illegally  relocated  include  orphans,  children  with disabilities, unaccompanied minors, children without documents, infants, children separated from their relatives during hostilities or whose parents died or disappeared, children sent to “health camps” by Russian authorities and not returned to Ukraine, and children held in temporary accommodation centers.

Orphans and unaccompanied children are most at risk: they lack legally assigned persons representing their interests. Such lacuna opens opportunities for establishing guardianship against their will, illegal adoption, forced acceptance into Russian citizenship, and significantly complicates leaving Russia. The lack of an appropriate infrastructure in Russia, including teachers, psychologists, caretakers, also critically affects this group. Before the war, Ukraine had the largest number of children in institutions of special care in Europe (about 91,000 with half of them with disabilities). Since February 2022, the media have been talking about the evacuation/deportation of orphanages from the occupied territories.

Open data suggests that the geography of distribution includes 57 regions of Russia. Children are placed with foster families, in boarding schools, and “health camps.” The most common relocation process includes four stages: evacuation, temporary accommodation in the occupied territory, transfer to a transit point in Russia, and arrival at a permanent place. An employee of the Russian government often acts as a guardian to launch the procedures for acquiring Russian citizenship and adoption. Officially, a Ukrainian family that lost a child should come to Russia and pick them up. But in reality, there is neither a well-established procedure for this, nor clear information about the child’s location.

“Bring Ukrainian Children Home,” a political action of the Russian diaspora exists in 40 cities: http://savechildrenfromputinism.org

While the Ukrainian authorities and non-profit organizations have done a tremendous job, it is impossible to organize a systematic search and retrieval of children without the help both from within Russia and at the level of international organizations. The longer children stay in Russia, the higher the risk of their forced “passportization” (granting citizenship), forced adoption, and indoctrination. There is also evidence of “re-education of Ukrainian children” and “patriotic adoption” by Russian citizens.

Legal Context

Removal and forcible transfer of minors is widely recognized as an act of violence. International humanitarian law is particularly sensitive to the well- being of children in situations of armed conflict. Art. 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits deportation, regardless of the motive, except in cases where temporary evacuation is required for security reasons. It is argued that the forced transfer of children also constitutes a crime under customary international law, which applies to all states.

International organizations have repeatedly warned of violations of children’s rights, including human trafficking, sexual exploitation, abduction, and illegal placement with foster families. On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Alekseevna Lvova-Belova. They have been charged with a war crime: the illegal deportation of children and the illegal transfer of children.

Russian government may argue that not all categories of children sent to Russia have been relocated in violation of international law. Some of the international norms regulating these actions have opposite goals. While under the said Geneva Convention, there is a ban on forced deportation, unjustified civilian casualties are unacceptable. According to Art. 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the best interests of the child must always be acted upon. At the same time, if the person did not have a genuine choice due to being subjected to abuse of power or persecution, then such a transfer would in many cases not be considered voluntary or in the best interests of the child.

HRW position: “Most of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch where Ukrainians from the Mariupol and Kharkiv areas were transported to Russia amount to forcible transfers. […] A forcible transfer is a war crime and a potential crime against humanity and includes a transfer in circumstances where a person consents to move only because they fear consequences such as violence, duress, or detention if they remain, and the occupying power is taking advantage of a coercive environment to transfer them.”

Unequivocally, the cases of the “passportization” of displaced children is a clear violation of Art. 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (citizenship can only be accepted by the legal representative of a minor). The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi underlined that granting citizenship and adoption violates international law.

Russian activist in Kazan protesting and demanding that Lvova-Belova be sent to the Hague Tribunal.

In direct violation of this article, Putin issued a decree simplifying the citizenship process for orphans and the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs published an order with a legal form on how to renounce Ukrainian citizenship. The form can be filed on behalf of a child left without parents and permanently residing in Russia. Of course, the Russian authorities can ensure the permanence of stay even without the consent of the child; at the same time, Russian social institutions seemingly have an interest in acquiring citizenship of the Russian Federation by/for children.

Are the ICC Warrants Effective?

The ICC warrants are effective. Despite the fact that Russia does not recognize the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the press secretary of the Russian President Dmitry Peskov named the warrant legally void, its’ effect can be detected in the actions of state officials.

For example, on April 10, Lvova-Belova’s office prepared the release of a bulletin on protecting the rights of children during a special military operation (notably, only in English). On April 14, her office issued a statement that the children of Ukrainian citizens were “on a vacation in the Krasnodar Territory” and that they were “delayed in returning” and have been eventually “handed over to their relatives.”

The change in Lvova-Belova’s tenor in her personal social media posts is also noteworthy:

Before the warrant: January 19After the warrant: April 14
“We have a long history of acquaintance with these high school students from Mariupol: they participated in our programs for children from new regions ‘The Day After Tomorrow,’ and now they are actively helping us under the ‘Teens of Russia’ program. And here is their first visit to Moscow, and another personal meeting…”“…Russia has always helped and continues to help families stay together. You can contact us for help in finding your child if you were separated due to hostilities. Also if you know about such cases, you can use our e-mail [email protected]. We thank the volunteer organizations of Russia and Ukraine that help in this process.”

These actions show that the sanctions do not go unnoticed, and the addressee of the new statements is the international audience. We hypothesize that the Russian side, despite tough public rhetoric, is trying to mitigate the consequences of its crimes. The international community should continue to use the leverage of the ICC warrants to put pressure on Russia to improve the situation of the deported children and reunite them with their families as soon as possible.

How the Ukrainians Are Getting Their Children Back

The process of search and rescue of Ukrainian citizens captured by Russia is handled by an extensive system of Ukrainian government agencies that are closely integrated. These actors range from military unit commanders and municipal authorities all the way to national-level departments. Each agency has its own tools and competencies, and thus complements the overall efforts to achieve the common goal. Over the past years, an advanced regulatory and legal framework has been created for the search, rescue, and subsequent provision of social support for Ukrainian citizens who have suffered from captivity or illegal imprisonment.

The search for missing citizens of Ukraine is carried out by several government agencies, including the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine, the Security Service of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, the Ministry of Internal  Affairs  of  Ukraine,  the  Ministry  of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, the Ministry of Digital Transformation, and others.

Hotline of the National Information Bureau


The central agency coordinating efforts for search and rescue of citizens of Ukraine is the Coordination Headquarters. Its branches are located in Kyiv, Mykolaiv, Vinnytsia, Kharkiv, and Lviv (contacts can be accessed via the links). The Headquarters was created back in March 2022 and at first dealt exclusively with issues related to prisoners of war. However, its powers have expanded and at present it coordinates work on both prisoners and civilians. The Office of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights works together with the Headquarters. Direct work on the search and rescue of civilians is carried out by the Representative of the Commissioner as part of Ukraine’s security and defense agencies. The Joint Center of the Security Service of Ukraine works in close cooperation with the Headquarters.

In March 2022, the National Information Bureau was also established in Kiev according to the Geneva Conventions for the Treatment of Prisoners of War and for the Protection of the Civilian Population in Time of War. Central and local authorities, as well as territorial military administrations of Ukraine were instructed to submit monthly reports on deported persons to the National Information Bureau. Presumably, the exchange of information with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international organizations will be facilitated by this Bureau.

The Ukrainian authorities have done an excellent job returning the deported children. An especially valuable contribution of the state was the creation of a unified register of forcibly displaced persons, including children, as well as the Unified Register of Missing Persons. Furthermore, the website ‘Children of War’ is perhaps the most cited source aggregating information on the number of children affected by the war (it was created by the Ministry of Reintegration together with the National Information Bureau on behalf of the Office of the President of Ukraine). The authorities of Ukraine also provide invaluable help in organizing temporary travel documents: the so-called ‘gray passports,’ including the possibility of receiving the documents by electronic means of communication.

There are several non-profit organizations and projects operating in Ukraine and abroad that complement the efforts of the state of Ukraine and help families find and return their children, as well as monitor and disseminate information, such as: Poshuk.Polon, Save Ukraine Foundation, ZMINA, SOS Children’s Villages, Missing Children Search Service, and Voices of Children.

Story from Save Ukraine: According to Mikola Kuleba, head of the organization, the fifth mission to return deported children managed to return 31 children after months of separation from their families. He notes that Ukrainian families are interrogated by the Federal Security Service of Russia. Judging by his assessments, the Russian authorities understand that the increasing practice of returning Ukrainian children to their families is becoming irrefutable evidence of crimes.

Despite the support of non-profit organizations and Ukrainian authorities, it is still very difficult for parents to get their children back. Getting your child back requires a lot of resources, including a foreign passport, money for travel, and the physical ability to travel. For many families, such a trip is an insurmountable expense. In addition, the suspension of air travel to Russia forces parents to travel thousands of kilometers by other means to gather their child. Overall statistics are difficult to ascertain: many children return within the expected time frame, some are held beyond the agreed return dates, and for many the return status is unknown, especially for the most vulnerable categories (i.e., orphans and unaccompanied children).

Needless to say, for a Ukrainian citizen, a trip to Russia and the occupied territories creates serious personal security risks. Men aged 18 to 60 are prohibited from leaving Ukraine. It is especially dangerous for Ukrainian men to travel to Russia, primarily to the occupied territories, because cases of extrajudicial detentions are known, including using the so-called ‘filtering procedure’ system. Mothers are often the only people who can travel to their child, and they need to go in person, as Russian authorities often refuse to transfer children through relatives or by proxy.

How Russians Can Help To Return Children

In Ukraine and abroad, there are numerous organizations dealing with the issue of deported children. Political repressions inside Russia prevent non-profit organizations from explicitly stating that they provide such support. The only organization inside Russia that has publicly spoken out about the problems of orphans from Ukraine is the Institute for the Development of Family Organization. Its representatives, Dina Magnat and Lyudmila Petranovskaya, emphasize that cooperation between Russia and Ukraine is necessary.

Dina Magnat’s position: “As far as I know, there is really no search for relatives of children who ended up in the Russian Federation in a centralized and coordinated way between countries.”

Lyudmila Petranovskaya’s position: “If possible, it is necessary to return the child to the environment where there are people close and familiar to the child. But this is clearly not being done – or not being done enough.”

It is impossible to return the children without cooperation from the Russian side. Today, such cooperation is possible primarily at the level of individual ad hoc contacts between members of the anti-war resistance inside Russia and Ukrainians. The media has mentioned the stories of volunteers who help parents find their children in Russia: they establish contact and help with buying tickets and accommodation. Due to security risks, they mostly choose to remain anonymous. As of January 2023, 125 cases of such ad hoc aid arrangements are known.

The volunteer project Helping to Leave is probably the most publicly known one. It does not organize the search for and extraction of deported children, since this is impossible without documents and parents. However, the project can help with the travel once the child has been located and reunited with their family in Russia.

Most often, the problems associated with the return of a child becomes known from colleagues from other organizations or partners within Ukraine. There are few cases when a child is not given legal representatives at their request, so it is possible to generalize information only based on problematic cases. For example, it can be argued that the main obstacles are finding the child, confirming the authority of a representative, and organizing the transit, as well as interacting with territorial guardianship authorities (they do not always possess the necessary degree of legal literacy). Often, the offices of the commissioners for human rights in Russia and Ukraine provide legal and informational support. Specialized human rights organizations, which have previously helped refugees and migrants, are usually ready to become involved in the return process. It is often necessary to involve a lawyer (almost every region of Russia has a community of lawyers cooperating with specialized non-profit organizations in this area). If there are difficulties with the return, in most cases the situation is resolved through the intervention of a lawyer or a human rights activist. Lawyers usually contact parents (legal representatives) directly, provide legal advice, and prepare documents.  So  far  however,  assistance remains fragmented and communication between volunteers, human rights activists, offices of human rights ombudsmen, and government agencies is established on a case-by-case basis. A far greater number of applicants will be able to receive aid if a systematic process is established.

Story from the Radio Liberty: The father of three children was separated from them when leaving Mariupol. He was detained because of his military service, interrogated, then held for 45 days in custody. His children were sent to Moscow, then to the children’s sanatorium ‘Polyany’ along with 31 others. After some time, the son told his father by phone that they were going to be adopted and that he had five days to pick them up. Two days later, the father reached Russia. Anonymous volunteers from Russia helped with travel expenses and gave shelter before the family could leave for Europe.

Difficulties With the Return of Children

Typical scenarios for deported children and associated problems
Original source: Yale School of Public Health Humanitarian Research Lab

Problem 1: Limited information from Russia, poor cooperation

While Russia is required to provide the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with information on every deported child in accordance with humanitarian law and Additional Protocol 1 to

the Fourth Geneva Convention, it fails to comply with this requirement. The Ukrainian side has sent several official requests, including in June 2022, to the Commissioner for Children’s Rights under the President of the Russian Federation, but they have remained unanswered.

The Russian government systematically and consistently ignores the provisions of the Geneva and Hague conventions and, unlike Ukraine, has not fulfilled its obligations to establish an Information Bureau, does not allow representatives of Ukraine and the Red Cross to see citizens of Ukraine held in captivity, does not facilitate correspondence or other information exchange, and does not provide material support.

Problem 2: Bureaucratic limitations, unclear procedure

The Russian authorities require documents confirming kinship and only allow parents or other legal guardians to pick up children. Ukrainian human rights activists note, however, that the requirements are not always consistent. For instance, the head of the Save Ukraine Foundation and former children’s ombudsman Mykola Kuleba says that visiting parents can be interrogated by the Federal Security Service of Russia. The lack of a single procedure and the general unpredictability seriously complicate the return of children. Parents often cannot afford the journey that requires visiting several transit countries, as well as visiting the territory of Russia. Children may be placed as far as in Siberia, where commercial flights may be limited. The situation is much more complicated when the child does not have a legal representative, his/her whereabouts are unknown, it is impossible to contact him/her, or the child has no documents.

Policy Recommendations: What Can Be Done at the EU Level

According to Natalia Arno, President of the Free Russia Foundation, the European Parliament and other EU institutions can use leverage against Russia (e.g., the ICC warrants) to improve the situation of the deported children and reunite them with their families as soon as possible, as well as facilitating working groups between civil society in Russia and Ukraine, ombudsmen for the rights of the child in two countries, the ICRC, UNICEF, and UNHCR with the aim to:

  1. Form, in cooperation with Russia, the Information Bureau for Children’s Affairs in accordance with Art. 136 of the Forth Geneva Convention. A neutral host country can be, for example, Turkey, Kazakhstan, or Armenia. The Bureau and the commissions created within this framework can be responsible for the issue of the return of the children. The third party must also request and verify the data provided by Ukraine and Russia.
  2. Form a single database for the ICRC from Ukrainian and Russian databases of deported children, with the assistance of civil society organizations that conduct monitoring.
  3. Provide clear instructions for preparing and filling out a set of documents required for the return of a child in both Ukrainian and Russian. Create a hotline to help with questions on this matter.
  4. Create a fund—possibly within the framework of the EU Child Protection Package or NGO assistance in accordance with paragraphs 10-13 of the resolution of the European Parliament of September 15, 2022—which will work on request and provide resources for Ukrainian citizens who want to get their children back on their own, as well as for Russian volunteer organizations helping in this endeavor. If the independent return of the child is not possible, the Information Bureau may receive the authority to return the children with the help of volunteers. This requires the legal consent of both parties, powers of attorney, and travel documents.
  5. If the child does not have a legal representative or documents, a special procedure for the temporary placement of children on the territory of a third party is required (NB: the UNHCR opposed the return of Ukrainian citizens to their country of citizenship before the end of hostilities due to danger). It is necessary to work out the logistics of temporary travel documents and approve their legal force—the experience of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine may be helpful, they have developed such procedures, including a ‘gray passport,’ which can be obtained, for example, in the Republic of Belarus or by electronic means of communication.
  6. Organize the issuance of EU visas under the simplified procedure for children and their legal representatives. It is necessary to regulate the provision of consular services to citizens of Ukraine and persons who have not had time to acquire Ukrainian citizenship.
  7. Continue to demand from Russia the protection of the children of Ukraine, including, but not limited to, security, education in their native language, self-determination, apoliticality, a ban on ideologization and discrimination for beliefs, and access to medical and consular services. It is necessary to demand the formalization of agreements, considering that Russia is a country of formal law (in other words, even the lawlessness must comply with some legal document).
  8. Continue to raise awareness in all relevant fora regarding the problem of this brief.

Policy Recommendations: What Members of Civil Society Can Do

  1. Collect and distribute information about cases of deportation and translate it into foreign languages. It is necessary to understand how many individuals are affected and what category children belong to.
  2. Because the image and narrative of child protection is an important tool of Russian propaganda (children are often used as an ‘information shield’), information should also be disseminated within Russia, since with internal propaganda many Russian citizens do not understand the nature of the crime that the Russian leadership is charged with.
  3. Unite in volunteer groups to search for and extract children. Provide resource assistance to parents who are traveling to their children.
  4. Exchange information with Ukrainian and Russian organizations, organize targeted searches, and provide advice to parents who are ready to travel to Russia on their own to pick up their child.

Authors: S. Ross, M. Krasova, V. Zhbankov, V. Plekhanova, V. Bovar

Organizations whose materials were used to a significant extent: Civic Assistance Committee, Kindernothilfe, Collective Action Think Tank, Reforum, EPRS, Poshuk.Polon

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