Over the past year of the all-out war waged by Russian aggressors, residents of Ukraine – adults and children, civilians and soldiers defending the country – have suffered incalculable misfortunes.
The topic of children traumatized by the crimes of adults is one that always attracts scrutiny. It’s too early to talk about exact numbers, but it is clear that millions of children in Ukraine have suffered from the war – they have been forced to leave their homes and traumatized by danger, they have lost their friends and loved ones and spent weeks and months in crowded accommodations, and thousands of them have been injured or killed. There is also the problem of children who were never born – Ukraine’s birth rate has naturally plummeted during the war. There are fewer children in the country. They have all felt the stress of the war, and they have all become victims and witnesses to some extent.
ADC Memorial is collecting the stories of children who were forced to move because of the war. Some of these stories have already been included in published materials (like the animated documentary film “We Have Left“), while others will be published in a special report on the website of the #CrossBorderChildhoodUA campaign.
It is extremely important to collect children’s first-hand accounts and impressions about the war and bear witness to the actual problems children suffering from the war are facing. We must protect children’s rights, but we must not profit from their fates. And it is specifically lies and speculation on the topic of children that have accompanied the propaganda of war and violence since the beginning of Russian aggression, since 2014. Many Russian soldiers taken prisoner in Ukraine said that they believed in some sort of mission to save children in Ukraine (there was a good reason why back in 2014 the propagandist Dugin and then Russian television spread the myth about the “crucified boy”).
The topic of “saving children” is still sounding in Russia in 2023: A pro-government concert held at Luzhniki Stadium on Feb. 22 was accompanied by a video of Russian soldiers “saving” children, supposedly in Mariupol. Frames from the video could serve as an illustration for charges that Russia is kidnapping children in Ukraine and forcibly taking them to Russia (including from Mariupol).
And it’s true, children from Ukraine have been taken out of Russia, often against the will of their legal guardians. The state of a child’s citizenship and the state of a child’s location are the only possible guardians for children left without parental care. Ukrainian authorities did not give their consent for the removal of children from institutions in regions occupied or temporarily seized by Russian soldiers. There have been cases where children were taken from their parents (that is, legal guardians) to Russia with the goal of naturalizing them there. The location of these children is then often concealed, and the adults searching for them (including Ukrainian government representatives) cannot always find them; if they do locate the children, it is rare that they are able to take them home. This practice violates children’s rights, Russia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Ukrainian law. Kidnapping and forcibly keeping children in a hostile country waging an aggressive war against the children’s homeland is a crime. Russia must provide complete information about all children who have ended up on Russian territory or in occupied regions of Ukraine (including in Crimea) and must urgently make it possible for these children to return home, or, if that is not possible, to return to a safe place under the Ukrainian government’s control.
ADC Memorial calls on all the other countries where Ukrainian children have found themselves after being forced by the war to leave their country to provide the Ukrainian government with information about unaccompanied children or children separated from their parents and about measures they have taken to protect these children’s rights and interests. In a situation of spontaneous forced migration, when millions of Ukrainian women and children left the country in the first months of the war (the spring of 2022), it was not always possible to document every case, and some children left without relatives or even identification. Particularly close attention must be paid to protecting the rights of children from groups vulnerable to discrimination, including ethnic minorities, children with disabilities, and non-citizens. Some families were separated during their relocation or in their new country of residence, with children often ending up in children’s shelters or foster families. Information about such cases must be collected, analyzed, and discussed with all involved parties, including at the level of intergovernmental communications. Protecting children’s rights is the obligation of the authorities of their country of residence and of the authorities of their country of citizenship.
Comprehensive measures are needed to prevent the exploitation and trafficking of children and the loss of data on them. Bilateral agreements guided by the UN CRC’s position on children in migration are needed. Permanent channels of communication for officials are needed.
The rights of children must be a priority for all countries where children could find themselves, be it for forced or voluntary residence, transit, or permanent relocation.
There is a need not just for information, but for actual effective actions to protect the rights of children that take account for the positions of experts and specialists in this area.