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Why the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia is an act of genocide

According to the 1948 Genocide Convention, one of the definitions of genocide is the forcible transfer of children from one national group to another with the intent of erasing identity and destroying a national group. That accurately describes what Russia is doing today: in addition to denying Ukraine simply the right to exist, Russians steal Ukrainian children and subject them to violent “russification”.

Approximately 19,500 children are being held in Russia today after being unlawfully deported, according to rough estimates.

A bus with children being taken from Izyum, Ukraine to Belgorod, Russia. April 20, 2022.
Photo: Mykhailo Voskresenskyi / SNA / IMAGO

With many victims and witnesses, as well as direct statements from Russian officials, this war crime is being widely investigated. In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights, as suspects responsible for those unlawful deportations.

Why are Russians kidnapping Ukrainian children?

By deporting Ukrainian children, Russia pursues several goals. For one, the adoption and deportation of Ukrainian children are part of a larger genocide campaign. The Kremlin tries to deny the existence of Ukrainian identity, history, and culture by stealing Ukrainian children and re-educating them. 

For instance, the leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, announced that he is working with the Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, to have “difficult teenagers” from various regions of Russia and the temporarily Russia-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions brought to the Chechen Republic for “preventative work” and “military-patriotic education”.

Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner, with children taken from the temporarily occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Photo: Kremlin press office

Moreover, Ukrainian children are not only fed with Russian propaganda but also used in it. For example, the Russians produced a whole series called “Childhood. Return”, which tells the story of the kidnapping of Ukrainian children under the guise of adoption. To incentivize Russians to adopt, they are offered a “one-time payment of maternal capital and state assistance”. 

How are children from Ukraine unlawfully transferred to the territory of Russia?

Russia is often deporting children under the pretext of “evacuation”, “treatment”, “vacation”, or “rehabilitation trip”. Russia tries to justify the so-called “evacuation” of children, but it is still a violation of international law, as in cases of danger, children should be handed over to a third country.

Russians took children from Energodar to the temporarily occupied Crimea.
Photo: Energoatom

There are five typical scenarios that the aggressor state uses, according to Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights:

● forcibly relocate children whose parents were killed in the temporarily occupied territories;
● children are removed from their families, and parents are deprived of parental rights according to the “laws” of the so-called “occupation authorities”;
● parents are separated from their children in filtration camps;
● create unlivable conditions and then transfer children to “rehabilitation” under duress;
● take children from care institutions.

Сhildren from the temporarily occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions taken to Russia in February 2022.
Photo: Maria Lvova-Belova

In the territory of the aggressor country, minors have their personal data changed, and for Ukrainian children, the procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship has even been simplified. Therefore, it will be difficult to identify and return them home in the future.

How are the Russians treating the children they took from Ukraine?

The children who were rescued from Russia testify to poor conditions and abuse, says Dmytro Lubinets. Some children were threatened with being sent to the orphanage; they were told that their parents had abandoned them, that some Ukrainian cities no longer exist, and that Ukraine, not Russia, is to blame for this war.

15-year-old Anastasiia from Kherson says that she was threatened with being taken to the Urals and put in an orphanage.

“They all started to hate us because we are Ukrainians, because we came from Kherson. They called us ‘khokhlushkas’ (a derogatory term used by Russians to refer to Ukrainian girls or women),” she recalls the bullying in the camp from both the administration and local children.

Сhildren returned to Ukraine.
Photo: Kateryna Lykhohliad (RFE/RL)

According to the girl, hundreds of Ukrainian children were brought to the camp, where they were made to sing the Russian anthem.

“They told us, ‘Sing the anthem, and if you don’t know the words, just open your mouth.’ Nobody did it; some laughed. The director’s deputy told us that ‘you are nothing here, we feed you, give you water, shelter, and you are ungrateful, go back to your own, to your fascists.’

“Very often children are punished for refusing to speak Russian, refusing to learn and sing the Russian anthem, or standing up during the Russian anthem. Practically all children testify that they were psychologically bullied and called different names because they are Ukrainians. There are even children who testify that they were beaten for such disobedience,” says Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights and Child Rehabilitation Daria Herasymchuk.

Ukrainian children must be returned home

According to statistics from the “Children of War” state portal, as of June 1, 2023, 19,505 Ukrainian children had been deported. The exact number of affected children cannot be determined at present due to active hostilities and the temporary occupation of Ukraine’s territory.

Only 388 of them were returned to Ukraine thanks to the tremendous efforts of human rights organizations, volunteers, the state, and even children’s relatives.

Save Ukraine organization helps to return illegally deported children to Ukraine.
Photo: Ukrainian Service (RFE/RL)

Bringing back Ukrainian children from the Russian Federation to the territory of Ukraine is an extremely difficult and time-consuming process. Currently, there are even no lists of these children that the Russian authorities have shared with the European Union or international organizations.

Therefore, Ukraine is calling on other countries to join in developing an appropriate mechanism to return all Ukrainian children home. And to ensure that all those who have committed those horrible crimes against them will be brought to justice.