Ukrainian officials in Russian-occupied territories are accusing Moscow of forcibly deporting orphans to Russia as the Kremlin formalizes its illegal annexation of four regions in eastern Ukraine.
Serhi Haidai, the Governor of Luhansk province, said that 76 orphans from the region were taken to “social rehabilitation centers” near Moscow and that another 104 institutionalized children are being prepared for adoption in Russia.
“This allows the occupiers to close the generation gap, especially among the male population, which is growing daily with the number of military deaths,” Mr. Haidai said this week on the social media app Telegram.
Luhansk is one of four regions in Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed territory so-called referendums in September that were held in violation of international laws.
The Russianization of parentless Ukrainian children is part of a broader crisis of Ukrainian war orphans who are being scattered across Europe.
Mr. Haidai’s accusation builds upon similar reports of unaccompanied children being forced into Russia.
Last month, the United Nations assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ilze Brands Kheris, alerted the U.N. Security Council about “credible allegations of forced transfers of unaccompanied children to Russian occupied territory.”
“We are concerned that the Russian authorities have adopted a simplified procedure to grant Russian citizenship to children without parental care, and that these children would be eligible for adoption by Russian families,” she said.
The U.N. agency responsible for providing humanitarian aid to children, known as UNICEF, said adoption should never occur during or immediately after emergencies.
Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental group that spotlights human rights abuses, condemned hasty war-zone adoptions as a violation of laws of armed conflict, which “prohibit a party to the conflict from evacuating children who are not its own nationals to a foreign country without their parents’ or guardians’ written consent, except temporarily as needed for compelling health or safety reasons.”
Days after Ms. Brands Kheris raised her concerns before the U.N. Security Council, Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova announced that 125 orphans from Donetsk had arrived in Russia to be placed with Russian families or in foster care.
The children, some of whom are disabled, range in age from 3 to 17 and had “lived for a long time in children’s homes and orphanages.”
“All the children have already received Russian citizenship and adoption or custody is conducted under Russian law,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
In total, Russia says it has placed 300 children from Donetsk with Russian families or in foster care and confirmed that another 104 orphans from Luhansk “are being prepared for arrival in Russia as well,” matching Mr. Haidai’s recent claim.
The number of Ukrainian children in Russia may be far higher, some fear, and tracking the number of orphans among them may be an insurmountable task.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in June that 200,000 children had been forcefully taken to Russia since the start of the war in February. Human Rights Watch says it has not been able to confirm that figure.
Before the Russian invasion, more than 105,000 children were institutionalized across a network of 700 orphanages throughout Ukraine, accounting for just over 1% of Ukraine’s total child population.
By July, according to a recent report by Reuters, more than 96,000 of those children had been removed from institutions and placed under the care of parents or guardians. Due to a lack of record keeping by the Ukrainian government, the whereabouts of thousands of those dismissed from the orphanages are unknown.
As of last month, UNICEF said it is still unable to reach 26,000 of those children removed from institutions. Of those children who remained unaccounted for, 4,777 were sent home from orphanages in Russian-occupied territories.
Western officials said the mass deportations of Ukrainians to Russia are likely part of a “filtration” operation in which civilians are interrogated, detained and forcefully deported in a bid to suppress resistance in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine.
According to a September assessment by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence published on the State Department’s website, Russia is “almost certainly” subjecting Ukrainian civilians in occupied regions to filtration operations.
“Individuals face one of three fates after undergoing filtration, which includes being issued documentation and remaining in Russian-occupied Ukraine, forcefully deported or Russia, or detained in prisons in eastern Ukraine or Russia,” said the DNI.
The U.S. State Departed said it received reports of thousands of Ukrainians including children shipped to Russia and some undergoing reeducation or indoctrination.
“Once in Russia, some reports indicate that Ukrainian children undergo what Russia refers to as psychological ‘rehabilitation’ and are forced to complete unspecified educational projects,” said the State Department.
Russia’s Ambassador to the U.N. Vasily Nebenzya dismissed the allegation as “unfounded” and said civilians are fleeing Ukraine “to save themselves from the criminal regime.”
“As far as we can judge similar procedures are applied in Poland and other countries of the European Union against Ukrainian refugees,” Mr. Nebenzya told the Security Council last month.