This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
At the time of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Yulia was living in the southern city of Kherson with her second husband and three children, two from her first marriage.
Just before the outbreak of hostilities, Yulia, a Ukrainian woman who asked to use a pseudonym, sent her eldest, 8-year-old Marina, to see the girl’s father in a nearby district.
But when Russian forces invaded, swiftly occupying much of the Kherson region, Yulia quickly left town with her two other children, seeking safety in Ukraine’s west. She said she lost contact with Marina and her estranged ex-husband.
She was flabbergasted seven months later to find out where Marina ended up: on the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula. Yulia’s ex-husband had left their daughter with a neighbor and the neighbor, who enthusiastically supported the Russian-occupation administration, took the girl to Crimea.
It took Yulia another three months to find out that Marina had been put up in a residential school in the peninsula port of Feodosia — and it took until January this year to figure out how to go get her and bring her back.
Though Yulia was ultimately reunited with her daughter, her case is emblematic of one of the more shocking dimensions of Russia’s 13-month-old invasion: the relocation, or deportation, of many thousands of Ukrainian children to Russian controlled territories. Some Ukrainians call it outright kidnapping.
Since February 24, 2022, at least 19,505 children have been taken from Ukraine to Russia and Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, according to official data from Ukrainian authorities. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said in April that the number exceeded 20,000. As of May 31, just 371 children had been returned, Zelenskiy said.
But those are only the cases reported to the Ukrainian authorities by a parent or guardian who witnessed Russian military forces or other occupation personnel removing a child. In reality, Ukrainian activists say, hundreds of thousands of children may have been forcibly taken to Russia or Russian-held territory — many of them from Mariupol and the Kherson, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions.
A new investigation by Systema, RFE/RL’s Russian investigative unit, found that children from Ukraine have been sent to at least 88 orphanages or similar social service institutions throughout Russia and Crimea.
The effort has strained Russia’s already overburdened social welfare infrastructure. Some of the summer camps that have served as transit points or temporary accommodations are grossly unequipped to handle the influx of children and teenagers.
With President Vladimir Putin’s government piling pressure on Russia’s own system by moving large numbers of Ukrainian children into the country, Russian officials have also tried to relax the rules for their adoption in order to get them out of that system and into adoptive families as quickly as possible.
RFE/RL’s findings underscore the scope — not to mention the improvised, often-haphazard process — of Russia’s effort to relocate Ukrainian children and house them with adoptive parents, a process that many experts say violates international law.
The issue became a matter of explosive political consequence in March when the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest, accusing him of war crimes for the “unlawful deportation” and “unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
The other person targeted by the court was the Kremlin-appointed children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova.
“This is nothing more than an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people through children,” Daria Herasymchuk, the Ukrainian government’s commissioner for children’s rights, told RFE/RL.
“Because they are not only stealing children; they are killing them, inflicting physical harm on them, psychologically traumatizing them,” she said. “That is, they are doing everything to destroy the identities, the affiliation of these children to their native country, to Ukraine.”
‘Large-Scale, Systematic Network Of Camps’
Evidence suggests that the occupation authorities in the Russian-held parts of the Donetsk region consider children whose parents’ or legal guardians’ location is unknown to be “left without care,” a status that formally allows Russian authorities to assign them to families in Russia.
In a June 2022 letter that was obtained by Systema, an adviser to Russian-backed regional leader Denis Pushilin wrote to him proposing a system under which children arriving in the region without a parent or guardian would be considered “left without care” if their parent or guardian could not be found within 10 days.
Pushilin’s response is unknown, but the letter from the adviser, Eleonora Fedorenko, may have set the stage for the formalization of a practice that had already been in use on Russian-held territory in Ukraine.
Well before the announcement of the ICC arrest warrants, Ukrainian officials, with the help of international legal experts, had sought to systematically document how many Ukrainian children had been removed by Russian authorities.
Some of the children who have ended up in Russian custody were forcibly or involuntarily separated from their parents or guardians.
Some of the children were orphaned — either given up to Ukrainian welfare agencies prior to the invasion or orphaned when their parents were killed in Russian attacks or battles between invading Russian forces and Ukrainian defenders.
Russian officials have repeatedly claimed the removal of Ukrainian children from conflict zones has been done out for concern for their safety.
But if there are other surviving relatives — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents — with whom the children can be united, then moving Ukrainian children across the international border into Russia is likely illegal, experts said, and may be an outright war crime.
In a report released in February, Yale University researchers concluded that the Russian government was operating a “large-scale, systematic network of camps and other facilities that has held at least 6,000 children from Ukraine” since February 2022. Researchers identified 43 facilities, both in Russia and in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Yale researchers also said at least 350 children who had been sent to Russia after the invasion had been transferred to foster families, some of whom moved to legally adopt them.
Among other things, Ukrainian officials say Russia has done little if anything to return children taken from Ukraine back to their guardians or relatives, even when presented with clear legal documentation.
A fact-finding mission authorized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Vienna-based intergovernmental organization, was more unsparing in its criticism.
“The practice of the forcible transfer and/or deportation of Ukrainian children to the temporarily occupied territories and to the territory of the Russian Federation may amount to a crime against humanity of ‘deportation or forcible transfer of population,'” the OSCE mission said in a report presented on May 4.
When the invasion began, Volodymyr Sahaydak was running a children’s welfare center in the Kherson region: Fifty children, aged 3 to 17, lived at the facility, the Center for Social and Psychological Rehabilitation. All were orphans or had been abandoned by their parents or were in temporary foster care due to difficult family conditions.
Some of the center’s employees fled when Russian forces advanced on the region; others were unable to work due to curfews. Sahaydak said he moved in to live at the facility full-time. Older children pitched in to help, given the lack of staffing. Volunteers and neighbors helped provide food and other supplies.
Russian military officials first came to the center in June, months after Russian forces seized control of much of the Kherson region.
“They suggested we cooperate with them. They said that Russian textbooks would be brought to us, that we would operate according to their programs,” Sahaydak said.
“During the occupation, it was hard for us to say no. We just said, ‘We’ll think about it,'” he said. “And that’s how it was until liberation” — when Ukrainian forces recaptured much of the Kherson region last year.
“If we had said no, we probably wouldn’t be there anymore,” he said.
Sahaydak had hoped to evacuate the children out of Russian-occupied territories. He said Russian military officials, including intelligence agents, visited the center periodically and at one point confiscated its background files on the children.
In June, 15 children from another orphanage in a nearby district were brought to Sahaydak’s facility. He said the children had been housed in a basement for several months, forced to bathe in a bucket and cook food over open fires.
Finally, on October 19, a Russian military bus arrived at Sahaydak’s center, and all the children were taken away.
“I was told that if we resisted, the soldiers could come back and ship us off along with the children. There’s not much you can do when you’re faced with automatic weapons,” he said.
The children were taken first to Crimea, then to the Russian Black Sea city of Anapa, where they were apparently were kept in decent conditions, and were later moved to Georgia, Sahaydak said. Their current whereabouts are unknown.
The complexity of the issue is furthered by the fact that, in some cases, parents voluntarily allowed the children to be taken to Russian-occupied territories, mainly to get them out of the cross fire of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
Last October, Alina, a Ukrainian woman who lived in the city of Kherson and who asked that her real name not be used, said she and her husband accepted an offer for their 13-year-old son Andriy to attend a sports camp in Russian-occupied Crimea.
The previous months under Russian occupation, she said, had been unpleasant and confused; schooling was online, but education officials switched the curriculum from Ukrainian to Russian.
In September, the director of the soccer club that Andriy played with mandated that he return in person to the school affiliated with the club.
The following month, the club director offered to take the boys to Crimea.
“No one took the children by force, but, of course, [the organizers] implored us very much,” Alina said. “The director said: ‘There will be football, training, the children will have a break from the shooting, they will be fed, they will be fine there. Let them rest for 10 days, and then they will be brought back.'”
“In general, the parents themselves decided whether to send their children to the camp or not. And I think that we ourselves are to blame for letting the children go to Crimea,” she said.
At the end of the trip, the directors offered to let the children stay longer. Parents like Alina who did not want to extend the trip were told they would have to come themselves to drive their children home.
“There’s war where you are, but here it’s safe. We won’t bring the kids back,” Alina said the director told her.
Alina said she and her husband started saving money and trying to organize a trip to the camp to pick up Andriy. Then a key bridge over the Dnieper River in Kherson was destroyed — possibly by Ukrainian forces looking to cut off Russian troops — turning what would have been a five-hour drive into something much longer.
A charitable foundation called Save Ukraine helped her get a passport and visa, and along with 13 other mothers who were seeking to collect their children, Alina traveled to Crimea — via Kyiv, then Poland, then Belarus, then Moscow, then by train to Crimea. It took a week to get there and another week to get back, traveling by bus.
“Andriy didn’t say anything bad about the camp,” she said. “They were fed and given water, they went for walks; no one humiliated them there.”
But, she said, “no one forced them to speak Russian, but they themselves were afraid to speak Ukrainian.”
Other children have reported abuse, however. A boy who was among 17 children who were returned to their parents in late March after six months at a camp in Crimea said in a video report that the Russians in charge beat children with metal rods if they said, “Glory to Ukraine!” or otherwise displayed patriotism to their country.
Save Ukraine said it was aware of at least two instances of abuse among this group of children. Their parents had sent them to a camp in Crimea in the fall for what were supposed to be stays of 10-14 days, but occupation authorities refused to bring them home after a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kherson region, according to Save Ukraine.
For her part, Alina said she and her family have moved and are now renting an apartment in Mykolayiv, a river port city about a three-hour drive northwest of Kherson.
While orphans are believed to make up a sizable percentage of the Ukrainian children who have ended up in Russian facilities, another category of children are those forcibly separated from their parents or guardians.
When Russian forces began bombarding the port of Mariupol in the weeks after the invasion, Yevhen Mezhevoy, a single father of a son and two daughters, initially hid out in a bomb shelter at an abandoned hospital.
Then Russian troops ordered them to evacuate, threatening that the Chechen soldiers who were soon to arrive would be far more brutal in their tactics, Mezhevoy told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service in February.
At a checkpoint, however, Russian soldiers noticed that Mezhevoy, a crane operator, had previously served in the Ukrainian military. He was separated from his three children and eventually taken to a “filtration camp” — a catchall term describing facilities where Russian authorities screen and interrogate Ukrainians for military or political ties — at Olenivka in the Donetsk region.
Mezhevoy said he turned over custody of the children to a Ukrainian woman he met at the checkpoint. He spent 45 days at the camp in Olenivka before being released.
His children, he later learned, had been sent to Moscow at the end of May, along with 28 other Ukrainian children, and were put in temporary accommodations in a sanatorium outside the Russian capital.
According to a document from the family and children’s affairs committee under the Russian-imposed authorities in the Donetsk region that was later obtained by Systema, Mezehvoy’s children had been designated as having been “left without care.”
Through connections with Russian-backed authorities in the occupied part of the Donetsk region, Mezhevoy finally contacted his son, Matviy, about two weeks later, in mid-June. He said Matviy told him that in five days’ time, he and his sister were to be housed in an orphanage or adopted by a Russian family.
“‘Dad, social services came. They want to adopt us,'” Mezhevoy recalled his son saying. “‘They can’t bring us to Donetsk because there is a lot of shooting there. We either go to a boarding school or we’ll be adopted. They said you have five days maximum.'”
Mezhevoy had not wanted to travel to Russia, but he had no choice. He scraped together money for a train ticket and with the permission of Russian occupation authorities traveled to Moscow and reunited with his children.
Weeks later, he and his children managed to leave Russia entirely, relocating to the Latvian capital, Riga, where he said he’s trying to settle in, with his children attending local schools.
Many, if not all, of the Ukrainian children who were sent to Moscow were adopted by Russian families. One of the boys, Mezhevoy said Matviy told him, was adopted by Lvova-Belova.
They had been “reeducated,” she said.
Russia’s own social welfare system — particularly for orphans but also disabled adults and others dependent of public welfare — has long been considered outdated, creaky, and rife with corruption, underfunding, and maddening bureaucracy.
That has further deepened concerns about how authorities are seeking to care for children that have been taken from Ukraine.
Two officials affiliated with Russian’s guardianship service told RFE/RL that in at least one region of Russia, orphanages and boarding schools are overcrowded due to the large number of children brought from Ukrainian regions that Russia has claimed to annex. That has prompted authorities to rush to transfer Ukrainian children to Russian foster families as soon as possible.
Adding yet more worry: Even when a Ukrainian has legal proof of kinship, the bureaucracy makes it exceedingly difficult for them to take custody of a child who has been sent to Russia.
Taking children temporarily from one country to another — for example, from Ukraine to Russia — for medical treatment does not itself constitute a crime under international law, said Ilya Nuzov, a lawyer and director of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia department of the International Federation for Human Rights.
Not returning a child is, however, under the Geneva Conventions that were updated in 1977.
“It is not the removal of the child for treatment that is considered a crime,” Nuzov told RFE/RL, “but the failure to return the child when treatment is completed. It is also considered criminal to take children away because of a ‘threat to their safety.'”
International law provides some limited exceptions, he said, but it stipulates specific procedures that must be followed, including providing notification to the International Red Cross, which is considered the overseer of the Geneva Conventions.
“Not only has the Russian Federation manifestly violated the best interests of these children repeatedly, it has also denied their right to identity, family, their right to unite with their family as well as violated their rights to education, access to information, right to rest, leisure, play, recreation and participation in cultural life and arts as well as the right to thought, conscience and religion, right to health, and the right to liberty and security,” the OSCE mission report said.
Finding out exactly where a child has been taken is just one step toward bringing them home, and it’s an an effort that requires parents or guardians to overcome serious hurdles, said Adriana Lito, a psychologist with Adriatika, an Israel-based international organization that helps people find psychological support. Those hurdles are even more formidable in a time of war.
“The war has presented people with a whole range of absolutely insane tasks, and many of them were unprepared,” Lito told Systema. War fears and anxieties make that even harder.
Moreover, rules change or are applied ad hoc, she said, and Russian authorities “learn from their ‘mistakes’ — if information about a way [Ukrainian parents] have gotten their children back is published, that channel is then closed, and it becomes harder for the rest.”
Money, or a lack thereof, can also be a factor.
“Parents — many of them…not at all wealthy, and also shocked and traumatized — have to overcome such a large number of barriers,” Lito said.