Ukraine: Deporting Children, a War Crime

Kyiv estimates that hundreds of thousands may have been taken to Russia, in some cases forcibly adopted.

Ukraine: Deporting Children, a War Crime

Kyiv estimates that hundreds of thousands may have been taken to Russia, in some cases forcibly adopted.

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Ukraine's Deported Children video by Maria Lebedieva and Edward Skrypnyk.
Thursday, 30 March, 2023

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Olga Mazur's eldest son, 15-year-old Sasha, was in a boarding school for children with disabilities in Oleshki. The Russians immediately occupied the town, about 20 kilometres away from Kherson on the other bank of the Dnieper River, and mother and son were separated.

“As long as I could visit, I did. Then, to prevent the occupiers from reaching the right bank [of Kherson], the Antoniv bridge was blown up,” Olga explained, referring to the Antonivskyi Bridge, which connected the two banks of the Dnieper.

There was no way Olga could bring him home, and mother and son could not even talk on the phone.

"My child does not speak. Physically, I could no longer handle him when he was 12 years old. And now he is almost 16. There is no basement in our house. I have one younger child, two elderly people, and my husband's brother [had] a stroke….We didn't have doctors even then. If Sasha had an attack, I could not do anything [for him]," Olga told IWPR.

There were several attempts to evacuate the 82 children in the special care facility, all unsuccessful. Communication between Olga and her son was cut. 

Since February 24, 2022 Ukrainian authorities have verified 16,207 cases of children being deported from the occupied territory of Ukraine to the Russian Federation; barely 300 have been reunited with their families. Authorities maintain that the real number of deportations may be hundreds of thousands. Most of them vanished in Russian territory: their phones were confiscated, their documents taken and replaced with new, Russian ones. There is evidence that children were also put up for adoption with Russian families. 

Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s children’s ombudsman, said that Russians had also taken children who lived with relatives or neighbours following their parents’ deaths. In various cases, children were taken because parents did not pass so-called “filtering” and told that mother and fathers did not want them anymore.

Herasymchuk explained that the most common tactic was when “[Russians] create absolutely unacceptable living conditions for children in the occupied territory and offer the parents to hand over the children for recovery or rest in children's camps in the Russian Federation”.

Parents are frequently threatened with losing parental rights if they refuse. The children are often taken to camps in Crimea, then moved from place to place until parents lose track of them.

This stratagem, largely used in the Kherson region, enables Russians to state that parents themselves gave their children up, but in an occupation environment the circumstances are complex. Teachers are also involved, willingly or forcibly. 

"Imagine, parents are called by a class teacher, or a football coach, and told, ‘See you have no food, no electricity, shelling, what about the children? We will send them to a sports camp, don't worry. We already did it many times before, it was normal, what is there to worry about,’” explained Mykola Kuleba, head of the Save Ukraine NGO.

The deportations started in 2014, he said, but the scale grew with the full-scale invasion. Since February 2022, the NGO has managed to bring back 61 children. 

"People are intimidated,  pressured to cooperate. Those who do not agree are tortured, threatened,” Kuleba continued, adding that those who want to leave for Ukraine-controlled territories are told they must do so at “their own risk”. 

“People just want to get out of the shelling. Russians say ‘we are evacuating,’ but this is deportation.”

Save Ukraine lawyer Myroslava Kharchenko noted that lawful evacuations required documentation in line with international conventions.

"If [Russians] were to abide by international law, the Geneva Convention, all humanitarian treaties regarding the protection of the civilian population, they should compile detailed lists for the children, indicating parents, place of residence, dates, and then transfer these lists to Ukraine through official government channels,” she told IWPR. “Instead, children are moved from one place to another, without informing the Ukrainian side.” 

In January 2023, Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets met his Russian counterpart Tetyana Moskalkova, who reportedly confirmed they had children who would like to return to Ukraine. She did not detail their number or identity, which would simplify the search. Moskalkova set as a condition that only parents can apply to be reunited, a circumstance that is not applicable in the case of children taken from orphanages or whose parents had died.

“The Russian Federation does not respond to our requests, our appeals, does not provide any information about Ukrainian children,” Lubiniets told IWPR.

On  March 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova as “allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children)” and that of “unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”.

Forcibly transferring children is one of the five signs of  genocide, according to the Geneva Convention. 

Lubinets said,. “We demand from the international community, on the basis of the collected evidence, to help us start an international tribunal, [to] investigate, on the one hand, the process of forced deportation of Ukrainian children, recognising it as genocide of the Ukrainian nation. And on the other hand, to condemn representatives of the Russian authorities who are directly involved in this crime.” 

After months of searching, Olga finally discovered in October 2022 that the occupying authorities in the Kherson region had taken children from the Oleshki boarding school to Crimea “for rehabilitation”. 

“I saw a list of 36 children, Sasha was one of them,” she continued. “The message said these children are to be brought to hospital Number 5 in Simferopol, in Crimea.”

Sasha was found in Bilohorsk, a town about 30 kilometres east of Simferopol. On March 22,  2023, he was among a group of 17 children finally reunited with o their loved ones in Ukraine. 

Volunteers are facilitating Olga and Sasha’s travel to the Ternopil region in central Ukraine, where the boy will stay in a facility for children with disabilities and his mother will live nearby. 

Olga said that seven children who used to be in Sasha’s facility in Oleshki remain in Bilohorsk, others are in Skadovsk, in the occupied territory of Kherson region, where she said conditions are bad.

Holding Sasha’s hand, Olga said she felt blessed to have her child back when so many others were still missing, adding, “They must all be returned from there. And soon.

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