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THE OCCUPIED. Why does russia abduct Ukrainian children and how does Ukraine combat it?

THE OCCUPIED. Why does russia abduct Ukrainian children and how does Ukraine combat it? © MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Image
"Salvation" one way with no choice

article by Anatoly Bondarchuk, Analyst of the Civil Network OPORA, Columnist of Radio Liberty Ukraine

and Oleksandr Klіuzhev, an analyst of the Civil Network "OPORA", coordinator of the Ukrainian Nationwide campaign "The Publicity Index measuring local governance"

No war can be called easy or pleasant. However, the war with russia derailed all the set ideas about this phenomenon. Violating international standards, ignoring human rights and the rules of war, russia resorted to a proven method of terror often used by the Soviet authorities. They use forced resettlement and deportation of Ukrainian citizens from the temporarily occupied territories.

Aggressor likes to debate the legal terms "deportation" and "evacuation". But for Ukraine, all these discussions and manipulations are of no importance. Regardless of the conditions under which people left for Russia – with or without a gun at their heads, without the right to choose the direction of salvation or based on their personal understanding of the situation – this is a tragedy. The tragedy of Ukraine's (hopefully temporary) loss of people and their human potential as a result of russian aggression.

Having destroyed the native homes of millions of Ukrainians, russia has severely restricted Ukrainians from leaving the territories controlled by Ukraine. Instead, the aggressor country often leaves only one cynical option — to go to russia, to the territory where the war, killings and destruction came from.

However, for many Ukrainian families, despite they had to pass the "filtration camps", this possibility, although morally difficult, became the only alternative to leaving the war zone. And then, through the territory of russia, they have a chance to get to the EU countries, and from there to Ukraine – if that is the desire.

Not all of them, thank God, became the victims of the russian regime. Some of our citizens have their own resources and strength to escape from the russian federation on their own and try to build a new life from scratch. But there are also those who have little chance to see the civilized world for radically different reasons: lack of money, fear of the future, intimidation, promises of golden mountains to the victims in the depressed Russian hinterland, or even fleeting political sentiments.

But all these reasons are unimportant.  The war expelled people from their homes, and nor they live in russia. None of them had to change, for example, their beloved Mariupol to an abandoned russian province before February 24.

The most disturbing thing is the removal of orphans because they are the most defenseless, and russia can very easily use them for its own purposes. The aggressor country gives them its citizenship and places them in foster families that will raise them as russians, not as Ukrainians. It is these children if they are not returned to the Motherland, that Ukraine risks losing forever.

So what is the real scale of resettlement? Why is the removal of Ukrainian children illegal? How does Ukraine bring its children home? Why is russia moving Ukrainian children?

Scale of Deportation

Unfortunately, Ukraine does not have definitive and final data, but the information coming from russia is shocking. The russian propaganda news agency "TASS", referring to information from their source in the security forces, reported that as of July, 24, that is, in exactly 5 months of the war, 2.8 million Ukrainians crossed the border of russia, including 448,000 children, of whom more than 2,000 are orphans and children deprived of parental care.

According to this data, the russians relocated to their territory 6% of the child population of Ukraine, which at the beginning of the full-scale armed aggression used to be 7.5 million people.

Ukraine gives slightly smaller numbers but emphasizes that they keep establishing the number of children abducted by russia and taken out of Ukraine. According to preliminary data, we are talking about almost 200,000 people. Those are the figures given by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, during his online address in The Hague.

As for the adult population, on the eve of July, 13, during an online speech to the participants of the "Asian Leadership" conference, which took place in Seoul (South Korea), Volodymyr Zelensky said that russia forcibly deported 2 million Ukrainians.

Винницкая облгосадминистрация

According to him, all the relocated people have been deprived of means of communication, documents have been taken away from them. They face intimidation and attempts to be sent to russia's remote regions, so that it is difficult for them to return to their homeland.

In addition, the President of Ukraine emphasized that russia has created the so-called "filtration camps." People in the occupied territories are forced to pass through them.

The exact number of such camps is not known. Currently, there is information that there are 18 "filtration camps" in the TOTs of Ukraine and in the adjacent areas of the rf. There is no exact data on the number of people who went through them. According to OPORA's rough estimates, more than 1 million Ukrainians, including children, have been filtered.

Why removing Ukrainian children and not returning them home is illegal

The Ukrainian side qualifies the actions of russia as a violation of various international conventions, and russia traditionally declines its responsibility and claims that Ukrainians left for russian territory voluntarily, and in general, russia is not engaged in kidnapping children. On the contrary, they save them by “evacuating” them to a safe place.

A similar statement for the meeting of the UN Security Council was promoted by the Deputy Permanent Representative of the russian federation to the United Nations, dmitry polansky. “All these people left voluntarily for our country, saving their lives and their children. We strongly reject groundless accusations that the russian authorities are engaged in child abduction ”, said polansky.

However, this is not true to the fact. Ukraine's accusations are well-founded.

Dmytro Lubynets, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, detailed on his Facebook page why russia's actions are illegal and violate several international conventions.

On July, 14, he reported (with reference to Moscow governor) about another case of deportation of Ukrainian children to russia. According to Lubinets, in mid-July, nine Ukrainian children deprived of parental care were relocated from the temporarily occupied Donetsk, transitting through Kursk and Rostov, to the suburbs of Moscow. All these children are siblings and used to live in the Donetsk orphanage. Now, they are planned to be placed with various families of russian citizens.

Dmytro Lubynets emphasized that russian propaganda pretends war crimes as noble acts, boasting of the “care” of the russians. “In fact, first, russia makes Ukrainian children orphans, killing their parents and family members with shells, separating their families in deportations, depriving them of the right to study and grow in the Homeland, destroying schools and civilian infrastructure of cities and towns, and then generously ‘accommodates’ them with the strangers in a foreign land!” — believes the Commissioner.

Dmytro Lubynets emphasized that with such actions, russia violates the provisions of Article 49 of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. This provision prohibits forced relocation or deportation of persons from the occupied territory.

In addition, another part of this article provides that persons evacuated if the security situation so demands shall be transferred back to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area in question have ceased.

This point is very important — russians deliberately call the deportation of children the “evacuation”. However, such actions cannot be considered an "evacuation", since the rf does not plan to return Ukrainian children to the territory where hostilities have ceased. russia demonstrates the seriousness of their intentions not only in various public statements but also by placing the relocated children in foster families, and even granting them their citizenship under the "simplified procedure".

Thus, according to the report of the Commissioner for the Rights of the Child under the President of russia, maria lvova-belova in the social network "Vkontakte" dated July, 15, by the end of the week, 108 orphans from Donbas who have acquired russian citizenship under the "simplified procedure" will get parents.

The introduction of this procedure was initiated by vladimir putin himself, who signed a decree on May, 30, on the simplified admission into russian citizenship of Ukrainian orphans or those who have been left without parental care, including in the temporarily occupied territories. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs believes that by this decree, putin actually legalized the abduction of children from Ukraine.

“We consider the decree of the President of the russian federation on simplifying the admission into russian citizenship of Ukrainian orphans or those who have been left without parental care as kremlin's attempt to legalize the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children from the territories of Ukraine temporarily occupied by the russian army to the territory of the russian federation. By his decree, putin de facto legitimized the abduction of children from the territory of Ukraine," the statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine reads.

However, the fact that russia does not plan to return children is evidenced not only by "passportization" but also by the cynical behavior of the already mentioned lvova-belova, who became a foster mother for a boy from Mariupol. At the same time, the woman does not negotiate with Ukraine about the return of the child. Instead, she is hyping herself claiming that the baby was taken out of the native country and they are not going to return him.

In addition to the Geneva Convention, russia's actions against Ukrainian children fall under Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide. According to it, the forcible transfer of children of the group to another group means genocide. This is dangerous because a child may lose their identity, connection with their homeland and home country.

Also, according to Dmytro Lubynets, the aggressor country violated a number of articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in particular:

  • Article 8, which establishes the obligation of States Parties to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations, without unlawful interference;
  • Article 21, which enshrines that the adoption of a child is authorized only by competent authorities who determine that the adoption is permissible in view of the child's status concerning parents, relatives and legal guardians and that the persons concerned have given their informed consent to the adoption.

In addition, the Commissioner for Human Rights points out that adoption in another country can only be considered as an alternative way of caring for a child if it is not possible to provide other suitable care in the child's country of origin.

However, as practice shows, russia is not at all concerned with compliance with international legal instruments. That is why the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine has a lot of work to document all the war crimes of russia and form a high-quality evidence base for the Hague Tribunal.

Russia has no way of escaping responsibility for its crimes.

How Ukraine brings its children home

However, it is one thing to record crimes, and it is another thing to work to bring Ukrainian children home, and Ukraine is actively working on both tasks. This is a complex and lengthy process, but it is already yielding results. Currently, 47 children have been successfully returned to Ukraine.

In Ukraine, the National Information Bureau records data on the deportation of children. A special hotline can be contacted directly by citizens; the relevant information is also provided by official Ukrainian structures. That is, everyone who has become aware of the deportation of a person, and a child, in particular, could report. As of July, 25, 5,658,000 children have been verified, and these numbers are changing every day.

In addition, on June, 17, 2022, the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine established a Coordinating Staff for the protection of the rights of persons deported or forcibly displaced in connection with the armed aggression of the russian federation against Ukraine. The Staff is chaired by the Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, Iryna Vereshchuk.

Their efforts resulted in having 47 children returned to Ukraine in a month. Iryna Vereshchuk shared about it in her comment to OPORA.

"With the assistance of the Ministry for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, in a month, we managed to return bring back 47 children who had been forcibly removed to the russian federation. Most of them have difficult life stories, they are either orphans or children deprived of parental care. Some of these children became orphans already during the war,” the Minister said.

According to her, the return of children takes place in manual mode, quite literally. Negotiations are held with the russian side about each child individually; legal representatives are determined for these children, mostly their relatives. The delivery routes also need to be elaborated separately. Most often, they are complex because they run through several countries, both ways.

“Representatives of these children need to take a difficult trip, both in terms of its length and psychological burden. That is to say, in order to get from Kyiv to Donetsk, you need to go through the territory of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and russia, and then you enter the territory of Ukraine occupied by the russians, take the children there, and take the same return trip,"— said Iryna Vereshchuk.

Another difficulty in the process of returning Ukrainian children is their adoption by russian citizens. A representative of the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights on the Rights of the Child and Family, Aksan Filipyshyna, told about this on the YouTube channel "OPORA Speaks".

“What is the danger of the adoption procedure? In fact, in the long run, the adopter may change the child's first and last names, and even their date of birth. This implies that it will be very difficult for us in the future to personify and identify our children. Furthermore, the laws of the russian federation provide for the secrecy of adoption. If the adopter keeps the secret of the adoption, it will be very difficult to find where our child is,” Filipishyna said.

Unfortunately, Ukraine does not have information on the number of forcibly passportized children. Filipishyna confirms that negotiations on the return of Ukrainian children are extremely difficult. Each case is individual, the number of people involved is different each time. The problem is that russia does not respond to Ukrainian official appeals to clarify information about Ukrainian children.

She also emphasized that families deported or forced to leave the occupied territories because of russia face a lot of problems when trying to get out of there. First of all, there is an information vacuum. However, if such people manage to contact Ukrainian state entities through the Internet, they can be consulted.

According to Aksana Filipishyna, various services are available in electronic format, for example, "E-Malyatko" (E-Baby) and "E-Sud" (E-court). For example, with the help of the first service, it is possible to issue a birth certificate for a child. The second service can help track the progress of court cases regarding the restoration of documents.

Украинский интерес

“A large number of appeals concern the loss of documents for children, which disables their movement from the territory of russia. There are women who have already given birth on the territory of russia, or, they gave birth in the occupied Mariupol and did not have the opportunity to register a birth certificate. For such cases, there are a number of ways to obtain a Ukrainian birth certificate. In particular, the Ukrainian Ombudsman may apply to the court to establish facts of legal significance, such as the birth of a child. Then, by court decision, through third countries, the restored documents can be transferred to the family through diplomatic means, so that he/she could further leave the territory of russia. We already have the first court case,”— said the representative of the Commissioner for Human Rights.

In addition, the lack of funds is often a problem, because in order to reach third countries, it is often necessary to cross a large part of russia, from the place of resettlement of Ukrainians. In addition, we should also talk about the absence or limited number of so-called "green corridors" through which people could leave the occupied territory directly to Ukraine.

Why russia deports Ukrainian children

Therefore, given the scale of the deportation of Ukrainian children, it remains to be seen why russia is implementing this policy. After all, the deportation of Ukrainian citizens and the payment of one-time assistance in the amount of 10,000 rubles (even if they pay it non-consistently, and not everyone receives the assistance) needs funding in the amount of several dozens billions of rubles.

The answer is simple — it is an element of russia's strategy to destroy Ukraine as a state, Ukrainian nation and ethnicity. Moreover, the analysis of similar situations in the past suggests that the occupiers plan to "raise" military force for further war with Ukraine. russia has already implemented this scenario when mobilized Ukrainians from the previously occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as from Crimea, to their armed forces.

The russification of Ukrainian children will take place through the integration into the russian educational process and the activities of so-called "patriotic" and militaristic children's organizations, such as the "Yunarmy", as well as through the provision of russian passports to Ukrainian children and their parents. We have already seen such actions of the invaders not only in the russian federation but also in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, which russia seeks to annex.

What should Ukraine do?

The answer is obvious – to try in every possible way to bring our children and their parents home. Unfortunately, this process can drag on for years, so Ukraine needs to identify deported Ukrainians, establish and maintain contact with them, and help them return to the territory of Ukraine. Moreover, Ukraine must not stop working even with those citizens who do not wish to leave russia. The aggressor plays for a long time and without emotions, and we have to learn that too.

The urgent task is to return the orphaned children until they are finally hidden on the territory of the aggressor state.

The package of operational solutions also includes helping citizens find safe ways to return home through "green corridors" and third countries, as well as providing financial support for departure even from the most remote regions of russia.

Access to public services, online education in Ukrainian schools, and remote admission to our universities are tools for a long-term struggle for our people deported to russia. But it must be started now.

Read this article by Anatoly Bondarchuk and Oleksandr Kliuzhev in russian and Ukrainian.

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