Kidnapped Future: Ukrainian Minor Refugees in Russia
Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion nearly 8 million people have left Ukraine—the majority are women and children. According to UNHCR almost 2.8 million of them have gone to Russia. While the estimated numbers of children who have been brought to Russia vary greatly, what we do know is that many have not chosen to go.
Based on a review of Ukrainian and Russian news reports and semi-structured interviews with Ukrainians, the following outlines how Ukrainian children got to Russia, how many are estimated to be there, and what is happening to them once they are there.
From Ukraine to Russia
Refugees or hostages? `Saving operation` vs Genocide?
Russia, underlining its missionary role, calls the removal of children from Ukraine to Russia a `saving operation`: they are saving children from ‘Nazi’ Ukraine. But in most cases, standards of international law would classify the way in which these removals of Ukrainian children were carried out to be both deportation and genocide.
These active removals actually began in 2022 several days before February 24, when the authorities of temporary occupied Donetsk (“DPR”) and Luhansk (“LPR”) regions announced that people in the region needed to evacuate to Russia. Many removals took place in occupied territories under attack—families with children were faced with the ‘choice’ to board Russian buses to flee the country and save their lives, or risk bombing and starvation.
In many cases, kidnappings were disguised as a suggestion to take children for medical treatment or vacation rest. Darya Gerasimchuk, the authorized representative of the President of Ukraine for children’s rights and child rehabilitation said, “almost 50 pupils of an orphanage in occupied Kherson were to be taken by the Russians to a sanatorium in Crimea. The occupation authorities mentioned the specific institution in which children were supposed to be brought for rest. Instead, they were immediately taken to a psychiatric hospital. We still do not know where these children are [emphasis added].”
How many children are there?
In addition to not knowing where all Ukrainian children in Russia are, the estimated number is also unclear—anywhere from 300K (according to Ukrainian media) to 738K (according to Russian media).
Russian officials’ high estimate of 738K child-refugees is likely the general number of children who crossed the Ukrainian-Russian border.
The report of the Eastern Human Rights Group and the Institute of Strategic Research and Security mentions that deported Ukrainian children can be conditionally divided into four groups:
- children with no parents or legal guardians; these were easiest to be removed to the Russian Federation.
- children whose parents or current legal guardians had their legal and custodial rights removed; More than 38,000 applications were filed with the courts of the self-proclaimed LPR and DPR to remove custodial rights from parents and guardians. Largely this procedure took place for minors who were under the informal care of grandparents and other relatives; in some cases it was applied to families who refused to give their children to the Russian system of propaganda education.
- children who have lost or had their homes destroyed and now lack shelter
- children with their families; mostly in cases of forced deportation of the whole family
The official Ukrainian state database Children of War estimates approximately 16,000 Ukrainian children have been kidnapped— however because it only reports cases with specific information about a kidnapped child, including their name, date of birth and other official information reported by their parents or guardians, the actual number is likely higher as in the majority cases such information is missing.
The Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale’s School of Public Health reports that Russian officials have systematically relocated at least 6,000 children from Ukraine to a special network of re-education and adoption facilities in Russia-occupied Crimea and mainland Russia.
Once in Russia
Through filtration camps
Before being relocated to an orphanage in mainland Russia, many Ukrainian children, including those with their families, go through filtration camps. Families can be separated if parents do not “pass the filtration”. In these cases, children, without money, telephones, and documents, cannot contact their other relatives and inform them about where they are. For example, Alexander, a 12-year old boy from Mariupol, was lucky to remember his grandma’s telephone number by heart. After a month of forced separation from his mother he managed to take his friend’s mobile telephone and secretly call his grandma, saving himself from adoption to a Russian family. This is one of the rare lucky cases where a kidnapped child was brought back to Ukraine. But there isn’t still any information about his mother, who stayed in that camp. As of 4 March 2023, the Children of War platform has managed to bring back only 308 children who were kidnapped by Russia.
“Forget Ukraine” – cultural reeducation
Once in Russia, authorities try to emphasize its ‘attractiveness” to encourage Ukrainian children and especially Ukrainian teenagers to stay. These claims include:
- the cultural and linguistic environment are familiar from childhood (which they were “deprived of” in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union),
- there is the opportunity to find good work and become rich
- they can get education in their ‘native Russian language’, which is ‘impossible in Ukraine’
- they can easily obtain Russian citizenship, real safety, and a sense of peace
They also reinforce messages such as “your parents do not need you” and “Ukrainians are evil.”
However, one of the principal rights of refugees when they flee is to be able to return back home when they wish and when they deem it safe. Further, successful repatriation and reintegration often depends on having been able to maintain contact with their native culture in displacement. Ukrainian children in Europe are not only active participants of cultural practices of the hosting countries (including excursions, concerts, theaters, exhibitions, sport events and many others), but have active support in safeguarding their Ukrainian identity and culture. They can get education and cultural services in Ukrainian with European cultural, educational, and scientific institutions even offering different programs to support this. For example:
- in big cities of most European countries there are museum audio-guides in Ukrainian
- many European libraries (even in small towns) suggest books in Ukrainian
- minors can get Ukrainian education on-line and/or via great number of local diaspora institutions (such as church “Sunday schools”)
Some cultural events are translated by volunteers; In a semi-structured interviewed, a 47 year old Ukrainian woman in Florence Italy described, “We went to the theater ‘Verdi’ and the representative of the local cultural organization ‘Onouka’ even translated some episodes from the play for my daughter, as she doesn’t understand Italian well yet.”
Instead, children brought to Russia, are forced “to love Russia.” Many of them are placed in hospitals or holiday camps and are forbidden contact with the external world. Children, who were lucky to be brought back to Ukraine, tell stories about how they were forced to sing Russian hymns, were taught to hate Ukraine, and were forbidden to talk in Ukrainian. Ukrainian teenagers who do not want to love Russia and are still nostalgic for and hoping to return to their homeland, are labeled by Russians as difficult and are subjected to ‘re-education’ in Chechnya in a special camp near Grozny.
There are many obstacles in bringing displaced children back to Ukraine. Axana Filipishina, Deputy head of the Ukrainian Gelsinky Analytical Department on Human Rights outlines the key challenges:
- Absence of any type of database or list: Russia refuses to share any data or lists (even if such things exist) with the information about displaced children.
- Absence of identification: Even when numbers of displaced children are disclosed, personal information is not revealed. Small children, with(out) documents are given different names.
- Geographic scope: Children are spread within multiple regions of the country, even to the farther ones, like Magadan region and Sakhalin. Currently, Ukrainian children are present in 57 regions of Russia.
- Re-integration: The longer children remain in Russia and grow up under Russian propaganda, the more rehabilitation support they will need when, and if, they return.
On 17 March 2023 the International Criminal Court in Hague has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Volodymyr Putin and the Russian Children’s Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, for the mass abduction of Ukrainian children. That is an important step but does not issue justice to all of the authorities involved in these crimes. And more importantly, it does not ensure the safe return of all forcibly displaced and separated children
Ukrainian children who remain in territories under threat of impending occupation are most at risk. Bakhmut is one of those towns. Will this story be repeated? To put an end to the kidnapping of Ukrainian children and their forced re-education with Russian propaganda, which is just one of the horrible pages of Putin’s policy of Ukrainian genocide and his attempts to vanish Ukrainian identity and nation, we urgently need:
- more data and a more organized way to identify missing children
- measures to prevent any more children from deportations
- a procedure for returning deported children from Russia, and measures to support them.
Cover Photo: 29 of March 2022, Chernihiv, playground at the city park near the Desna River, where author Dr. Keda used to play with her 4-year-old child before war.