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The illegal deportation of Ukrainian children is a crime organized and financed by Russian officials

Since the onset of Russia’s full-scale war, the occupation administrations in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine have been systematically deporting the Ukrainian population to the Russian Federation. This constitutes a war crime of forced deportation that affects both adults and children.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, more than 2.8 million Ukrainians have been deported to Russia, according to the UN. The number of deported Ukrainian minors could be between 200,000 to 300,000, according to Dariia Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights and child rehabilitation. However, only 19,546 children have been identified, and 388 of them have been successfully returned as of April 2024. 

Photo: Alexander Ermochenko / REUTERS

Children, as a vulnerable social group, are a primary target of Russia’s deportation policy, in part because of their susceptibility to re-education, propaganda, and disinformation. The return of kidnapped Ukrainian children from Russia is further complicated by issuing them Russian passports, as well as by the forceful adoption by Russian families despite having parents/guardians in Ukraine.

In order to keep deported Ukrainians, particularly children, on their territory, the Russian authorities are exploring various methods. One of these methods is the systematic establishment and funding of “temporary accommodation centers” for deported persons. The Yale Laboratory for the Humanities has identified 43 locations where deported Ukrainian children are housed and at least 32 institutions involved in their systematic re-education. 

There are also reports that Russia is militarising and russifying deported minors to erase their Ukrainian identity. Russian paramilitary organizations such as Yunarmia, the Movement of the First, and the Young Guard are involved in this process. These practices are deliberately genocidal against the Ukrainian nation. 

Research by the Where Are Our People project also shows that the facilities used to hold deported Ukrainian children are often repurposed summer camps, dormitories, orphanages, and even Russian Orthodox Church monasteries. The locations of these centers range from Russiaʼs border regions with Ukraine (Rostov, Belgorod, and Kursk regions) to Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Map with “temporary accommodation centers” for deported persons in Russia and Belarus.
Source: Where are our people? website

The decisions of Russian government officials determine the allocation of special funds for the forced deportation of Ukrainian children from the occupied territories, their further detention and russification on the territory of the Russian Federation. Notably, Maria Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights under the President of the Russian Federation, had allocated 420,000 euros from the Russian state budget for 2024 for these criminal proceedings. Since March 2023, Maria Lvova-Belova, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been subject to an international warrant for her involvement in forcibly deporting Ukrainian children.

Governors of key Russian regions are also known to be involved in these processes. For instance, Andrey Vorobyov, the governor of the Moscow region, deported 53 children from the Donetsk region and Makiivka to the Moscow region. The media reports mention Andrey Vorobyov has provided financial support for transporting the children and issuing Russian documents to them. Vorobyov was subject to a number of sanctions and restrictions in the United States, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand due to his involvement in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children and preparation for the mobilization of Russian troops for the war against Ukraine.

Andrey Vorobyov and Maria Lvova-Belova met the train with children taken from the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.
Photo: VOROBIEV_LIVE (Telegram) / BBC Ukraine

At the same time, Russian governors have assumed “patronage” over the occupied territories in Ukraine, criminally supporting the occupation of Ukrainian territories as Russian government officials. For example, Andrei Chibis, the head of the Murmansk region, has made multiple visits to the temporarily occupied Prymorskyi district in the Zaporizhia region, engaging with children in educational settings and inviting them to visit Murmansk, a city in the Arctic region of Russia. 

In September 2022, Chibis met 11 children who were deported from Ukraine at Murmansk airport. In the summer of 2023, Chibis is alleged to have used funds from the budget of the Murmansk region to finance the abduction of Ukrainian children from the temporarily occupied part of the Zaporizhia region to summer camps in the Krasnodar region, Russia. 

On December 11, 2023, an event was held to celebrate the Day of the Murmansk Region of the Russian Federation. Governor Andrey Chibis cynically brought both Russian children whose parents are fighting against Ukraine in the Russian army and deported Ukrainian children from the occupied Prymorskyi district of the Zaporizhzhia region. It is worth noting that they were wearing “Live in the North” sweatshirts, which suggests the Russian government’s intention to keep them in Russia rather than return them to Ukraine, which is a crime.

Several countries have imposed sanctions on Andrey Chibis (the United States, France, Switzerland, and New Zealand) for his full participation in the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and due to his involvement in the Russian “recognition” of so-called “republics” (in fact – Russian occupation administrations) in the occupied territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions

The governor of the Kuban region, Veniamin Kondratiev, has also been involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children. He visited the Artek children’s camp in temporarily occupied Crimea, after which some of the children were taken to Russia. Some of them are taken to Anapa (Vita camp), Gelendzhik (Medvezhonok (Bear Cub) camp), and Yeysk (Yeysk sanatorium).

Children from the temporarily occupied Luhansk region attend paramilitary exercises in the Volgograd region of Russia.
Source: OSINT investigation by the Where Are Our People project in collaboration with UA OSINT

Since 2022, Russian media have reported that Ukrainian children from the occupied part of the Donetsk region have been brought to summer camps in the Kuban region for so-called “rehabilitation”. This is one of the methods used by the Russian government to transfer Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation. Once the children have been taken to the summer camps, it becomes difficult to obtain information about them and to establish their identity: the Russian government is concealing this information, and there is ample evidence about these crimes. For this crime policy, several countries have imposed sanctions on Veniamin Kondratiev: the United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Australia.

In conclusion, it can be argued that the deportation of Ukrainian children by the Russian authorities should be considered a violation of human rights and a potential threat to Ukrainian identity. It is a fact that Russian officials are deeply involved in the abduction, re-education, and forced assimilation of these children. Efforts are being made to integrate vulnerable children into Russian society through targeted funding and institutional support. This initiative is financed by Russiaʼs state budget, which benefits from the global sale of oil.

In this context, it is essential to reinforce the mechanisms of international sanctions as a means of holding Russian officials accountable, as well as to establish a unified international framework for the expeditious repatriation of Ukrainian children who have been deported.

The prompt return of Ukrainian children to their homeland is of paramount importance, as they are subjected to forced Russification and militarisation on a daily basis, with the intention of eroding their identity. It is evident from historical precedent that during the Soviet era, deportees were unable to return to their homeland for decades, with some never being permitted to do so. Consequently, it is of the utmost importance to apply consistent and relentless pressure on the Russian government to facilitate the return of all deported Ukrainian children.

Vladyslav Havrylov, a researcher with the “Where Are Our People?” advocacy campaign by PR Army, and a research fellow with the Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues at Georgetown University