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Ukraine's abducted children: 'List of suspects will grow'

March 25, 2023

Ukraine's ombudsman on children's rights, Daria Gerasymchuk, explains how Russia has managed to transport at least 16,000 Ukrainian children out of the country, and how Ukraine is trying to get them back.

Ukraine Donezk | Russische Kommissarin für Kinderrechte Maria Lvova-Belova mit Kindern
Russia's commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, (center) has been charged with war crimes by the ICCImage: Pavel Lisitsyn/SNA/IMAGO

Since the start of the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine,the Russian military has taken thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. DW spoke with Daria Gerasymchuk, an advisor to the Ukrainian president's office, charged with protecting children's rights. She told DW about Russia's abduction tactics and how Ukraine is trying to get the children returned to Ukrainian territory that is under Kyiv's control.

DW: The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, on allegations of having kidnapped Ukrainian children and taken them to Russia. Are these the only two responsible?

Daria Gerasymchuk: Many people are involved, especially the representatives of local authorities in various Russian regions who have taken these children in. All video evidence left behind by representatives of the Russian authorities is being documented by Ukrainian state prosecutors and handed over to investigators from the ICC. So, I think the list of suspects will grow longer.

The issuing of arrest warrants for Putin and Belova is historic and a first step toward recognizing the genocide of Ukrainian people by means of child abduction. According to the provisions in Article 2 of the Genocide Convention of 1948, in Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the ICC, and in Article 442 of the Ukrainian criminal code, forcibly removing children from one group to another with the aim of destroying a national, ethnic or racial group is an element of genocide.

Vladimir Putin sitting at a desk
Russian President Vladimir Putin is now the subject of an ICC arrest warrantImage: The Kremlin Moscow/SvenSimon/picture alliance

DW: What do you mean? Is Russia abducting Ukrainian children to turn them into Russians?

Gerasymchuk: Yes, the Russians want to supplement their own population with Ukrainian children. Everything they are doing suggests that they do not intend to give the children back. Russia has sped up the procedures for adoption and naturalization, and is offering free schooling for children from Ukraine. What's more, the Russians are selecting children by carrying out so-called medical examinations in which the children are sorted into different categories. In other words, they are choosing the healthiest ones to supplement their own population with Ukrainian children.

DW: In your opinion, is this part of a greater plan by Russia, or has it arisen from the current situation?

Gerasymchuk: From the start of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia had a clear plan on what would happen with Ukrainian children. Its implementation began in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. The Russians changed childrens' nationalities and set up the so-called "Train of Hope," on which citizens of Russia could travel to Crimea to illegally adopt children.

At the moment, there are at least five scenarios in Russia by which children are abducted. We came to this conclusion after analyzing the journeys of 308 children who managed to return to their parents in Kyiv-controlled Ukrainian territory.

DW: What are these scenarios for child abduction?

Gerasymchuk: In the first scenario, Russians separate children from their families during so-called filtration processes. The parents are arrested without charge and their children are simply taken away. There was one case in which a father of three was arrested and not released for three months. By then, the children were already in Russia, but we were able to reunite the family.

In the second scenario, Russians kill the parents and take the children.

In the third scenario, children are simply removed from their families. Sometimes this is done by revoking parental rights. This is often the case with "troublesome parents" who do not want to cooperate with the occupation authorities.

The fourth scenario is when Russians do not allow us to fetch children from care institutions that have come under Russian occupation. Russia has never been willing to permit humanitarian corridors so that these children can be brought out. Instead, they are abducted. Since the start of the all-out invasion, children have been abducted from four facilities, and we were able to get them back from two.

The fifth and final scenario is the most frequent. First, the Russians create poor living conditions for children in the occupied areas. Then they offer the parents to send their child away for supposed rehabilitation in a recreational camp inside Russia. But the children never return from these camps, and are taken elsewhere without their parents' permission. Some of the children we were able to bring back were in such camps for more than a year.

Daria Gerasymchuk speaking at an event
Daria Gerasymchuk says there could actually be hundreds of thousands of children affectedImage: Office of the representative of the President of Ukraine on children's rights

DW: How can the children be brought back?

Gerasymchuk: To find a child and bring it back, you have to know who to look for. That is why the state-run platform "Children of War" was created. It contains up-to-date information and personal data about children who are suffering in Russia because of the war. At the same time, the Russians hide our children as much as possible: They take them away, then try to change their names and so on. That is why searching for them can be very difficult, especially for young children who cannot remember where they come from.

One very important point is whether the child being looked for has relatives in the area controlled by Ukraine who can organize guardianship and fetch the child from Russia with the help of the Ukrainian state.

DW: Do you have up-to-date numbers on the abducted children?

Gerasymchuk: All data is updated every morning on the platform "Children of War." At the moment, there are more than 16,000 children who have been deported and forcibly taken away. That is not just a number but a list of names based on information from parents, relatives, authorities or witnesses.

These pieces of information are checked by the responsible authorities, and a separate investigation is launched for each child. That means we have concrete data. But a part of Ukraine's territory is occupied and we have no access. This is why citizens there will not be able to say who was abducted, and when, until after their liberation.

It might be a matter of several hundreds of thousands of abducted children. In the media, Russian authorities speak of the "evacuation" of 744,000 Ukrainian children. But this number has not been confirmed by lists or personal data, so we believe this [the number] to be uncertain.

The interview was conducted by Oleksandr Kunytskyi.

This article was translated from German.