Yesterday, the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) initiated an investigation into the forcible transfer of children within parts of Ukraine temporarily controlled by Russia, and deportations to the Russian Federation.
Thousands of Ukrainian children may be in Russian hands, including children from residential institutions that fell under Russian occupation, and children who were sent to Russian children’s camps but not returned. Russian personnel have reportedly lied to some Ukrainian children, telling them, “Your parents have abandoned you.”
Human Rights Watch has documented how Russian-proxy authorities prevented the evacuation to Ukrainian-held territory of 17 Ukrainian children from an institution in Mariupol and instead sent them to Russian-controlled territory. Ukrainian doctors and institution directors have resorted to hiding children to prevent their removal.
Russian officials have stated that hundreds of Ukrainian children have been placed in Russian families and assigned Russian nationality, even though this violates international law.
The OSCE expert investigators will use the information collected to formulate recommendations, and make it available for courts and tribunals that may wish to use it in future proceedings. On March 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Russian President Putin and the Russian government’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the war crimes of unlawful transfer and deportation of children.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have trumpeted the deportations. At a press conference in Moscow this week, Lvova-Belova dismissed the ICC case. Russian officials claim to be saving “orphans” but are actually splitting families apart: 9 out of 10 children in Ukrainian institutions have parents. While portraying transfers of children as “evacuations,” officials have not granted safe passage to areas under Ukrainian government control.
Ukrainian authorities have collected nearly 20,000 complaints of missing children, but no system exists to verify and consolidate these cases. Human Rights Watch and dozens of civil society groups have called on the United Nations to ramp up efforts to locate missing children and ensure their return.
Several hundred Ukrainian children have been allowed to leave Russian-controlled territory if a relative came to meet them in person. Others have escaped. But the burden is falling on children and their families.
The OSCE experts’ report will be due three weeks after their mission this month. Time is of the essence to ensure forcible transfers of children stop and missing children are reunited with their families.