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Russia’s Seizing of Ukrainian Children: Why the Crisis Is Anything but Clear

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Andriy Yermak, who heads the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, tweeted on July 6, 2023, about this photo: “Today we are bringing home Ukrainian children illegally deported to Russia — 6-year-old Renata and 10-year-old Varvara. Their mother, a combat medic, was released in a major exchange in October 2022.” The issue of Russia’s abductions of Ukrainian youngsters in the war was featured in the United Nations’ recent report on children and armed conflict, but the numbers and status of the missing children remain in disarray.  

Russia has been blacklisted by the United Nations for committing numerous atrocities against children in Ukraine. In Secretary-General António Guterres’s recent annual report on children and armed conflict, both Russia and Ukraine are listed as “situations of concern,” but only Russian parties are listed in the annex, the so-called “list of shame.” Russia’s listing marks the first time a permanent member of the Security Council has been called out by a UN secretary-general for carrying out grave violations against children — in this case, in Ukraine.

The calling out is more remarkable given the possible political pressures that offending countries exert to try to stay off the list. Significantly, the UN office on children and armed conflict documented violations by Israeli forces in occupied Palestine on several grounds in this year’s report, covering 2022, as it did in the previous year. Yet Israel managed to stay out of the annex.

“Given the past politicization of the list, it’s encouraging to see a powerful government held accountable for its violations,” said Jo Becker, the children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, referring to Russia. Becker also works with Watchlist, a coalition of human-rights and humanitarian organizations formed in 2002, when the UN report was mandated by the General Assembly. Each year, Watchlist suggests recommendations to make the report credible, driven solely by data instead of political arm-twisting that can compromise the legitimacy of the report.

As Russia is named and shamed for its atrocities against children in Ukraine, the report also directs attention to another crucial problem resulting from the continuing war: the abduction of Ukrainian children by Russian officials. The matter became a public sensation when the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for allegedly arranging the forced transfer and deportation of children into Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine or into Russia itself.

Yet the report documents under 200 cases, starkly lower than the hundreds and thousands reported in media and elsewhere. “The verified violations in the report are always the ‘tip of the iceberg,'” Becker said, “and reflect only a small portion of actual violations.” Thus, the numbers and status of missing children remain in disarray, and the report only somewhat resolves that issue.

For all countries listed as “situations of concern” in the report, data are provided on each of the six grave violations against children established by the UN Security Council in 1999. This was the first resolution to address the topic of children and armed conflict. Initially, the focus was on child recruitment, but the violations now include killing and maiming; recruiting as soldiers; sexual violence; abduction; attacks on schools and hospitals; and denial of humanitarian access.

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Two categories of abductions appear in the report: abductions and transfers. In the war in Ukraine, 92 verified cases of abductions were recorded: one attributed to Ukraine and the rest to Russia. “A total of 92 children were used by Russian armed forces (91) and Ukrainian armed forces (1) as human shields (90), as a hostage and for domestic chores (1) and for intelligence-gathering (1),” the report says. Every child in this category was released.

The report also verified the transfer of 46 children to Russia from areas of Ukraine that are or had been under the temporary military control of Russia, including “children forcibly separated from parents, children removed from schools and institutions without the consent of guardians, and a child who was given Russian citizenship.”

Human-rights groups and the Ukrainian government have indicated that a much larger problem exists, although with no agreement on numbers. Ukrainian officials keep track of missing children, and as of July 5, their number sits at 19,492, but this includes children who are part of families that may have or migrated willingly to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine or to Russia itself. The Russian government itself boasts that 783,000 Ukrainian children entered the country between February 2022 and February 2023, but it’s not clear who the government is counting.

Various humanitarian and other international groups have developed reports on the problem, all with their own scope and access. Complications abound. When abductions are discussed, for example, there is no single group and no uniform legal language. There are four groups of children that most experts refer to, even if they might use slightly different labeling: separated from the family on a battlefield; separated from families at Russian filtration points and processing people trying to flee affected areas; sent to temporary camps and not returned home; and deported or transferred from Ukrainian state institutions for children. Spanning these groups is an overarching division between orphans and unaccompanied children who have been separated from their parents.

Adding to the confusion is that with overlaps, children from each group end up on different paths. Some land in re-education camps in Russia, some are still in “summer camps” in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and some are — whether directly or as a result of these steps — set up for adoption and/or renationalization by the Russian government. Some have been returned to Ukraine, but that statistic is also totally unclear.

The Yale Humanitarian Research Laboratory, with funding from and in collaboration with the United States State Department’s Conflict Observatory, received millions of dollars through bipartisan legislation aid to Ukraine for its work. The lab’s reporting focuses on identifying camps and proving the presence of Ukrainian kids at them through open-source reporting, social media accounts of Russian government officials and camp administrators as well as high-definition satellite imagery.

With some of this data, the Yale lab issued a report in February, concentrating on 6,000 kids from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, known as the Donbas, although the researchers assume this is a conservative estimate. According to Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the lab, some of those children have been returned to their families in Ukraine. The report finds that orphans and other children from long-term care institutions in Ukraine are targeted for deportation to Russian territory for adoption or foster care, while children with known parents or guardians seem to be sent to re-education camps.

Raymond determined that the UN report was solid but “really reflects what we don’t know as much as what we do know,” he said. He noted that the data gathering is difficult because it is occurring in the middle of a war, among other factors. “It’s important that it’s happened,” Raymond said of the report, “but it’s clear that much work needs to be done. This is not the final version.”

Human Rights Watch has produced two reports that overlap with the child abduction issue in Ukraine, but they don’t precisely target missing children. One is on forced deportations of adults and children. The other, from March of this year, studies the war’s effects on Ukraine’s highly populated “foster care” institutions.

Bill Van Esveld, who researched the latter report, estimated that about 2,000 children have ended up in Russia from these institutions. The numbers are conservative, Van Esveld said, acknowledging an inability to verify them. But these children have a particular vulnerability because staff at the foster care centers could not always adequately protect such large populations of children when the war broke out in February 2022 and because tracing them can be considerably difficult amid the war.

The Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental agency, released a report in May on the matter. It also does not commit to a strong tally, but its reporting on documented instances of “evacuations for security purposes” of children ranges from pre-invasion movements out of the so-called DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) in the Donbas to evacuations in mid-April 2023 from a town in the Zaporizhzhia region to the Russian-occupied area of Crimea.

There has been no major reporting on children who go missing on battlefields or have been separated from their families at filtration points — “camps” used by Russian forces to detain Ukrainian citizens in regions under Russian occupation before transferring them into Russia, sometimes forcibly. “We know that these groups exist,” Raymond said. “But we don’t know how many. And there’s no way to create a baseline because fundamentally there are kids who were never reported as missing.”

Groups like Human Rights Watch have been strongly recommending that UN agencies, governments and nongovernmental organizations cooperate on a central database. Van Esveld, who is the associate director of the Children’s Rights Division in the Mideast/North Africa region for Human Rights Watch, articulated this need.

“From our perspective, what seems to be missing is a good list, a registry of all the kids who are missing from Ukraine,” he said. “There is this website that the Ukrainian authorities have, but we just don’t have visibility on who’s included in that. So that’s one concern where we would hope that, you know, more resources could be devoted to this. That there could be an interagency committee or something to because it’s a top level concern.”

Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, meeting in June with Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, an envoy of the Vatican, on what has been described as a humanitarian mission. Lvova-Belova is accused by the International Criminal Court of the war crime of abducting Ukrainian children amid her country’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The ICC arrest warrants against Putin and Lvova-Belova in February focus on the crime of abductions. The content of the warrants was not made public, but during a video announcement in March, ICC President Judge Piotr Hofmanski explained that according to the warrants, both Putin and Lvova-Belova were “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.” The court’s sources of information are unclear.

As with the secretary-general’s report, UN agencies and the International Committee for the Red Cross have been much more cautious with their numbers and assessments, further confounding the possibilities of a united approach. The ICRC, along with Unicef and the UN high commissioner for refugees, have the most relevant connections to the problem. The latter did not respond to requests for information from PassBlue, and humanitarian organizations also say they having trouble getting information from the Geneva organization.

ICRC has people on the ground in conflict zones and regularly tracks family members missing in such settings around the world through its Central Tracing Agency. Soon after Russia’s full invasion last year, the ICRC set up a bureau for tracing all missing people in Ukraine. While the organization emphasizes that all recovery efforts take years, and that adoption (which Russia has also been doing) is not an appropriate response in any conflict, the ICRC experts also advocate, they said in a statement to PassBlue, for “a nuanced approach as each individual case comes with its own set of variables and complexities, meaning there is not one universal course of action for all children separated from their families.”

An ICRC spokesperson declined to go on the record with the organization’s number of children identified specifically as abducted and/or located in Ukraine. They also refused to comment on whether their specific modality — relying on family members to report missing children — would naturally exclude children in care institutions whose links to family members may be broken. Yet the ICRC insists it uses the same modality around the world in its work, “with the goal of alleviating the suffering of families who are missing or otherwise separated from their loved ones, and it works,” it said in an email to PassBlue.

Aaron Greenberg, a Unicef spokesperson who is the regional adviser for child protection in the Europe and Central Asia office, said in an email: “Unicef continues to be deeply concerned about reports of evacuations of children that take place without adequate safeguards, hasty returns of children from places of relocation that don’t consider children’s best interests, and expedited procedures for changing or adding nationality, which are unnecessary to protect children and should not occur during an emergency.”

Greenberg added that they “do not currently have access to non-government-controlled areas in Ukraine, nor to areas in Russian Federation where these children are reportedly still located.”

Notably, Unicef is co-chair of the UN Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting in Ukraine, which is the main provider of updates for the secretary-general’s children and armed conflict report.

The possibility of reuniting families is challenging when so many organizations and experts are working with different assumptions and numbers. Yet everyone who is focusing on the crisis points to a common goal: protecting and helping the children.

The Ukraine missing-child registry is the single consistently updated resource. But as Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch noted, international groups are unsure who’s included in the list, making it only partly useful. Humanitarian groups are advocating for a central database, but so far that has not been developed.

Humanitarian groups are also keen to define some part of the abductions as war crimes and/or crimes against humanity and contend the case is quite clear.

“It doesn’t have to be permanent,” Van Esveld said, referring to Russia’s temporary evacuations of children, supposedly for safety concerns and whether they are war crimes. “It just needs to be a coercive move of people from occupied territory, elsewhere in occupied territory or across the border.”

As to Russia’s assertions that some of the children are being taken from areas in Ukraine that are now part of Russia, Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said it’s explicit.

“It’s a war crime,” she said. “They can say until they’re blue in the face, we’re just evacuating schools. The bare unemotional fact is that this is an international crime. That’s all there is to it. It’s very straightforward.”

Responding to the assertion that children were “transported” for their own safety, Denber said: “But if it’s the case that they evacuated [the kids] to get them out of harm’s way, then they should show some intent and some other actions that make clear that they’re trying to return them to their home territory.” While there are miscellaneous reports of children being returned — often with the burden borne by parents having to travel at great hazard into Russia themselves — this number is also hazy, making it uncertain how many children remain either in adoption, in foster care or on a path to Russian citizenship.

Adoptions and handing out of passports are obvious actions to assess. While avoiding direct mention of any concrete numbers, the ICRC — in one of its strictly vetted official statements shared with PassBlue — said, “Adoption of children is not an appropriate response for unaccompanied or separated children in any humanitarian emergency.”

In dismissing claims that any child transfers or deportations by Russia have been “temporary,” Denber pointed out that “one sign you would look for is, are they making it easy or are they making it difficult for children to maintain contact with their parents.” She added: “Are they getting passports for these kids? Because that doesn’t seem very temporary.”

The children and armed conflict report provides a mandate to monitor actions closely. According to Virginia Gamba, the head of the UN office that produces the annual report, a high level of tracking is already taking place, but that doesn’t seem to be reflected in the low numbers laid out in the report regarding abductions, compared with other sources on the problem.

Since last summer, Gamba has been holding discussions with both Ukraine and Russia, including with Lvova-Belova, and she said that she was encouraged by their willingness to create plans: preventive for Ukraine, since it is not listed in the annex but as a “situation of concern”; and an “action plan” for Russia, which cannot be dropped from the list of shame until it writes and executes the plan.

Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch and the Watchlist is not as optimistic as Gamba. Russia also appears in Annex 2b, which is relegated for parties that have put measures in place to protect children, and Gamba has made assurances that in various instances Russia has committed to a plan to stop violations. But Becker counters, “We don’t believe that Russia belongs in Annex 2b, as we have not seen them take concrete measures to protect children,” she wrote in an email to Passblue. “Simply talking with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and making promises is not enough.”

Ukrainian authorities also express consternation with the UN jointly listing Russia and Ukraine in the report, albeit under different categories.

In an email exchange with PassBlue, Daria Herasymchuk, the Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights and Child Rehabilitation in Ukraine, emphasized that “one cannot compare the victim of the aggressor and the aggressor itself, since Russia’s act of aggression led to a protracted armed conflict and the continuous commission of brutal crimes in Ukraine by its forces and proxies. The whole world sees these crimes every day.” (Translation of the email from Ukrainian into English was done through Google.)

Gamba had previously said in an email to PassBlue that “while we’re aware that Ukraine’s military actions are in response to Russia’s aggression, the Children and Armed Conflict mandate applies to all parties to conflict . . . whether grave violations are committed during offensive or defensive operations.”

In a press conference on June 27 at the UN, Gamba declared that the behind-the-scenes action getting Russia to commit to an action plan and Ukraine to commit to a preventive plan has been going on steadily, and that each plan has been vetted over months of negotiation and is now in each country’s capital, waiting to be signed.

Russia “has offered measures against all six grave violations, not just the two with which we are most concerned,” Gamba said, referring to killing and maiming and attacks on schools and hospitals. Reading from the report at her media briefing, she specified that steps would include “facilitation of timely, orderly and safe return — and reunification of children in the conflict zone with the families,” adding that all the information must be shared with the UN.

The rest of Russia’s action plan and Ukraine’s prevention plan will not be made public, as with past action plans. Lack of transparency can be considered necessary to get countries to participate in the process, but it adds to the confusion with child abductions and the various organizations working on different pages.

Although the first media reports and ICC warrants have drawn considerable attention to the abductions internationally, it boils down to what Russia will do about returning Ukrainian children and stopping their deportations and transfers of them.

Herasymchuk is understandably jaded on expectations.

“Until today,” she said in an email message PassBlue also translated through Google, “the Russian Federation openly ignores any dialogue concerning UN human rights procedures, in particular with the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights, the International Criminal Court and the UN [International] Court [of Justice], so they still must prove that it really means to cooperate with the CAAC mandate, in particular by returning all deported Ukrainian children.” (CAAC refers to the UN’s Children and Armed Conflict office.)

Whether the UN report blacklisting Russia — with its cautious statistics on atrocities — spurs enough accountability and concrete response remains to be seen.

“These numbers are like biopsies in a cancer patient,” Raymond of Yale said. “We know there’s a systemic pathology. But we can only perform limited biopsies in limited areas. It doesn’t mean we have a full view of the disease. And that is by Russian design.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Russia's abduction of Ukrainian children?

Maria Luisa Gambale, a graduate of Harvard University, lives in New York City. In addition to writing, she produces film and media projects and is director of the 2011 film “Sarabah,” about the Senegalese rapper-activist Sister Fa. She has produced and directed video for National Geographic, ABC News, The New York Times and Fusion Network. Gambale’s work in all media can be viewed at www.veradonnafilms.com.

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Russia’s Seizing of Ukrainian Children: Why the Crisis Is Anything but Clear
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B. Khail
B. Khail
8 months ago

The situation of children in general matters for peace. There seems to be a linkage between a widespread violence against children in the famillies and wars – peace researcher Franz Jedlicka has compared data about child corporal punishment laws worldwide and peace indexes.
Brandon

Terry Klingberg
Terry Klingberg
8 months ago

The Vatican’s hypocrisy is astonishing

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