Thousands of Ukrainian children are missing, having been taken by Russian troops since the invasion began last year — and there are conflicting reports about what has happened to them.
A Monday report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine found a significant lack of clarity around the children’s removal from their country, including the exact number of children who have been taken so far and where they are now. That lack of clarity about the number and circumstances of children transferred “may hamper an expeditious return process,” per the UN report.
While Kremlin officials argue that they are “saving” the children by removing them from their homes, international watchdogs have called the forcible removal of Ukrainian kids — including infants as young as four months old — a war crime.
An estimate from the Yale School of Public Health puts the number of Ukrainian children that have been displaced or deported since the war began in the hundreds of thousands, including at least 6,000 who have been held in a series of Russian camps and ordered to undergo “re-education” programs to make their personal and political views more pro-Russia. Because Russian forces have targeted Ukrainian orphanages and other vulnerable populations, the number of taken children is likely “significantly higher,” according to the Yale report.
In January, Russia claimed 728,000 children had arrived in the country since the invasion began — a number that likely includes children who evacuated into the country with their families. An official estimate from the Ukrainian government puts the total number of forcibly displaced kids at just under 20,000. Though some 18,000 have been found, per Ukraine’s count, more than 500 are counted among the dead, and 1,241 “disappeared.”
Russia operates at least 43 known facilities dedicated to providing “re-education,” military training, and pro-Russia academic instruction to Ukrainian children forcibly removed from their homes, the Yale report indicated.
Children who have been rescued from the camps describe being forbidden to speak Ukrainian, being forced to listen to the Russian national anthem repeatedly, and being lied to and told their parents had abandoned them, according to firsthand accounts collected by the “Children of War” project compiled by Ukraine’s Ministry of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, established in 2016 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Insider previously reported some children who were taken against their will by Russian forces ended up being placed for adoption in Russia, where the process has been expedited to rush the stolen children through the system.
An act of genocide
The disappearances have become the subject of international outrage, with President Joe Biden on Thursday declaring alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that “what they’ve done to your children is just — it’s criminal.”
“Russia alone stands in the way of peace. It could end this today,” Biden said during his address. “Instead, as the threat of famine still stalks families around the globe, Russia is bombing grain silos in Ukraine and separating families, kidnapping — this is what I can’t get over — kidnapping thousands of Ukrainian children.”
In recent months, UN representatives of multiple countries have echoed Biden’s outrage, including Japan, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Albania.
Ferit Hoxa, Albania’s representative to the UN, called the deportations “an audacious bid to dismantle its future” of Ukraine, adding that Moscow “has failed to convince the world that its re-education camps and forced adoptions are, as portrayed, humanitarian actions” in an August statement.
Representatives for Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, the Government of the Russian Federation, and the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Insider.
The International Criminal Court in March issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin “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.”
Russia, which does not recognize the court’s authority, called the move meaningless and on Monday opened its own criminal cases against ICC prosecutors and judges, Politico reported.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court classifies the forcible transfer of a nation or ethnic group’s children to another as genocide. Though international law has provisions against the transfer of children, enforcement is scarce.
The ICC has issued 40 arrest warrants since its inception in 2002 — the two most recent against Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, and Putin himself — but only 10 convictions have been issued.