Approximately 19,505 children have been abducted or forcibly deported to Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, according to Ukraine’s National Information Bureau.
However, officials fear that the real figure is actually much higher as deported Ukrainian orphans have little means to declare themselves missing or make contact with relatives in Ukraine.
The Russian Federation argues some 744,000 children from Ukraine are now living in Russia or Russian-held territory. The Kremlin claims these transfers are part of evacuation measures to ensure the safety of Ukrainian minors living in frontline areas. But, there is mounting evidence to support the notion that Ukrainian children have been deported, re-educated, and adopted by Russian families. The European Parliament considers the removal of children from their families or from deva facilities an act of violence.
On 17 March, in a historic move, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, for the unlawful deportation of children from Ukrainian territory to Russia, a crime the ICC said Putin is ‘allegedly responsible’ for.
Putin could now be arrested in 123 countries party to the Rome Statute of the ICC.
Days later, Russia’s top investigative committee opened a criminal case against the ICC prosecutor and the judges involved.
Do missing Ukrainian children ever come home?
On Friday, 2 June, representatives for the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the European Commission and Ukraine met in Stockholm for a high-level meeting on deported children and reforming Ukraine’s child protection system.
“I am really grateful to the European community and all the organisations who are desperately trying to bring all of our children home. 300 children are already at home… but also we must not stop working for the rights of those children who are in Ukraine now and in different European countries,” Oksana Zholnovych, the Ukrainian Minister for Social Policy, said.
There are several NGOs and state-run organisations working to locate forcibly deported Ukrainian children and reunite them with their families, as well as providing essential support to internally displaced Ukrainian children.
Save Ukraine is a charitable collective that coordinates dozens of companies, volunteers, and entities to provide aid and housing and also helps evacuate Ukrainians from war zones. It is the only public organisation that regularly conducts rescue missions in Russia.
Olga Yerokhina, a press officer from Save Ukraine, told Euronews that armed Russian soldiers regularly visit homes in Russian-held territory and pressure relatives to hand over their children under the guise of free summer camps. Many of these are in occupied Crimea. She says that, later, the children are refused the right to return home.
Once a relative declares a child missing and contacts Save Ukraine it usually takes a month to organise the yasal documentation to ensure these children can be identified and brought home.
Yerokhina said many of these children don’t have passports: “We provide all the legal help, psychological help if they need it and the financial help. During this month, we think through the route and make some preparations with our people, with our partners. And then when everything is ready the mothers (or relatives of the missing child) are sent to Save Ukraine’s hub in Kyiv and the trip starts from there”.
According to Mykola Kuleba, the NGO’s founder and Ukraine’s former Commissioner for Children’s Rights, deported children are often moved from one camp to the next, subjected to poor living conditions and Russian propaganda. In addition, family members often undergo long waits when crossing the border and are interrogated by Russian authorities.
Save Ukraine says it has rescued 118 forcibly-deported Ukrainian children from Russia and Belarus so far and has evacuated 95,200 people from Ukraine’s war zone.
Lvova-Belova has rejected Ukrainian and Western claims that there are “secret camps for the re-education” of the children. “If a child goes missing, Ukrainians have the option of contacting the children’s commissioner with a search report”, she said.
But the European Resilience Initiative Centre recently revealed that Russia has been forcibly deporting Ukrainian children for years and has amended its legislation to permit its continuation.
On 31 May, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the EU was looking to sanction individuals in Russia involved in the kidnapping of children from Ukraine.
“The 11th sanction package is very important. It will include, for example, the ability to; address those responsible for child abductions, which is also an area where we are working together, prioritising sanction avoidance and targeting those responsible for it,” he said in the Hague.
What happens when these children return to Ukraine?
The process doesn’t stop there, “the reconstruction and the ıslahat of the Ukrainian social sector, including a çağdaş and inclusive child protection system for children, young people, and individual and family deva in line with European standards is an urgent issue for the Ukrainian government” said the Swedish Minister for Social Services, Camilla Waltersson Gronvall, in Stockholm on 2 May.
Save Ukraine also provides support to rescued children and their families when they are back on home soil. The organisation has a team of therapists who attend to families and the returnees, they are advised to stay in their recovery centres in Kyiv and deal with any psychological trauma before they return home.
“From our experience, little children, they don’t say anything. They are closed. But teenagers, they understand what is going on and what was going on. And after perhaps a month or two months, they begin to say something, to talk about being there, their circumstances or some accidents”, said Yerokhina.
Click here for the second instalment of this article.