/ 2 May 2023

Ukraine’s missing children need global intervention

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Call for solidarity with the people of Ukraine to ensure justice and peace, now.

With the help of the nonprofit organisation Save Ukraine, nearly 50 Ukrainian children were reunited with their families this month. Since 8 November last year, the organisation has assisted in returning 95 children. 

But thousands of children are believed to still be separated from their home of origin after alleged forceful deportations by Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in February last year. 

The International Criminal Court highlighted the alleged war crime when it issued warrants of arrest for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, last month for their alleged role in transferring children from Ukraine to Russia. 

In Ukraine, efforts by the state and social and civil society had recorded efforts to return Ukrainian children. The most recent initiative launched on 14 April is the mobile platform, Reunite Ukraine, that is designed to report and profile missing children. 

But Yevgeniya Gaber, of the global affairs nonprofit organisation Atlantic Council, argues legal action is needed from the international community to intensify already established initiatives aiming to return the remaining children. 

“Not enough has been done by international humanitarian organisations to address the issue or help bring back the children,” Gaber told Mail & Guardian. There are multiple humanitarian organisations who have to take a lead on that.” 

She wants for global players to work with Ukraine politically, diplomatically and financially. “We need uniting efforts of many countries to search for those children … because Ukraine cannot do this physically by itself.”

The M&G contacted South Africa’s department of international relations and cooperation to inquire if it will discuss the allegations against Russia for illegally deporting Ukrainian children at the Russia-Africa Summit to be held in Russia in July.

Department spokesperson Clayson Monyela said the summit will focus on a specific agenda and could not confirm if the agenda includes this issue. 

A United Nations Human Rights Council report underlines that in line with Article 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, “Russia is prohibited from modifying the personal status of displaced children, including their nationality” without consent of the home country. 

But, said Gaber, Russia amended its adoption law “in the early months of war so that it would be easier for citizens of the Russian Federation to adopt children brought from Ukraine”. 

Three months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin signed a decree on 30 May that simplified the adoption process for Ukrainian orphans or children without parental care, allowing them to acquire Russian citizenship. Yet many children who have been returned to Ukraine do have parents or guardians who took care of them before they were taken to Russia. 

Russia’s decision to amend its adoption law last year displays premeditated intentions to deport Ukrainian children. 

The Associated Press reported in October how Russia prepared “a register of suitable Russian families for Ukrainian children, and pays them for each child who gets citizenship — up to $1 000 (R18 000) for those with disabilities. 

“It holds summer camps for Ukrainian orphans, offers ‘patriotic education’ classes and even runs a hotline to pair Russian families with children from Donbas.” 

Gaber pointed out that Lvova-Belova adopted a boy from Mariupol, a city in Donetsk Oblast in Ukraine, that has been occupied by Russian forces since May last year. Lvova-Belova “basically acknowledged the fact that she’s herself involved in all these, you know, illegal activities,” she said. 

For Gaber, Russia’s removal of Ukrainian children aims to change the demographic situation in Ukraine, “but also undermining Ukrainian resistance in this war because this is of course, a very sensitive issue for [the] Ukrainian society”. 

Russia strongly denies their involvement in illegal deportation of Ukrainian children. 

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s permanent representative at the UN, called an Arria-formula meeting of UN Security Council members hosted by the Russian Federation on the topic “Children and armed conflict: Ukrainian crisis. Evacuating children from conflict zone” at the beginning of April.

The meeting was not broadcasted on UN television after the United Kingdom objected. 

Russia argued it made a decision to evacuate citizens from war afflicted areas to save lives and protect children. “Ukrainian propaganda and Western media are creating this distorted picture with diligence and deliberation,” said Nebenzia. 

In its response to the meeting, the United States asked Nebenzia: “If Russia is not trying to hide a systematic programme to force Russian citizenship upon Ukraine’s children, then it should give humanitarian organisations full access [to the children]. It’s as simple as that.”

Nebenzia said: “Truth is that children were evacuated from the zone of combat which happened through the fault of the criminal Kiev regime … Truth is that there is no such thing as forced ‘mass adoption’. Truth is that only orphans and children who were left without parental care, and who were already staying in foster facilities were placed under ‘temporary preliminary care’ or ‘temporary guardianship’ of Russian citizens. This is not adoption.” 

Olga Yerokhina, of Save Ukraine, said some cases might sound as if it is voluntary, but areas such as Kherson and Kharkiv are Russian-occupied regions, which provoked fear among people if they do not allow their children to be deported from a war zone. 

Families were also told their children were going on camps with their teacher or headmaster, who appear to have collaborated with Russia, she added.

Gaber said they often face difficulties to track children because they are taken to different parts of Russia. 

“And they change the information and basic data in the documents of these children, so sometimes names [and] surnames would be changed, sometimes their date of birth, sometimes the date of crossing the border will be changed to make it more difficult for us to find those children,” she said. 

Some children who were returned to Ukraine in April after almost six months in Russia, told Save Ukraine of their experiences, saying they were mocked and humiliated and others were beaten for rejecting Russian narratives. 

Save Ukraine brought back the 95 children to Ukraine by working with the mothers who themselves went to Russia and Crimea. Yerokhiva said there are no negotiations because Ukraine does not have diplomatic relations with Russia. 

“We work with mothers or relatives who are looking for [their] children. We send them with our drivers and we have some volunteers on that side in Belarus and Russia who help us, but we don’t reveal any details about them because of their safety.” 

Gaber said there are also Russian volunteers who try to collect information on the children and help track them. 

It is difficult to determine the exact number of Ukrainian children who are still in Russia. Citing official data released by Ukraine, Yerokhiva said there are about 19 500 children yet to be returned to Ukraine. 

“We consider these deportation of the children as part of a bigger Russian policy, which is to erase Ukrainians [as] an ethnic group on this Earth. They don’t recognise us as a nation. So this is how they tried to conquer us and to erase us,” said Yerokhiva.