Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial Brussels publishes the second report on the situation of children from Ukraine during the 2022-2023 war, the results of monitoring the situation as part of the #crossborderchildhoodua campaign with the support of the Fondation de France..
The presentation of the report will take place in Brussels on 20 June.
The violation of children’s rights in removing them from Ukraine to Russia and Belarus is an extremely relevant issue. The specific topic of children’s rights might never before have attracted as much attention as it does today. After all, children’s rights are often not seen as a key human rights issue and are overshadowed by other, better researched issues. But in 2023, it was the Russian Federation’s violation of international law as the aggressor state specifically with regard to children that drew the attention of international human rights organizations. This is due to the fact that, among the many war crimes Russia has committed with regard to the Ukrainian population, the removal of children came to be the most glaring indication that the international rule of law had been violated, which in turn led the International Criminal Court at the Hague to initiate criminal proceedings. Many human rights investigations have already undertaken to collect data on the forcible removal of children, including unaccompanied minor citizens of Ukraine and children from orphanages, care facilities, shelters and hospitals.
It bears mentioning that in many instances the situation is viewed through the lens of gathering evidence of war crimes, the violation of the rules of wartime, attempts to deprive children of their civil and political identity and thus also to trample the rights of the Ukrainian people. But there is another, no less important aspect of the issue of Ukrainian children in the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus: the violation of the children’s own rights in the sense defined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), an entire set of rights to family life, health, emotional and social wellbeing, protection from discrimination, education, rest, leisure time and many other things. Ukrainian children who found themselves in Russia and Belarus in 2022-2023 had these rights persistently violated, while monitoring of the situation was made complicated and sometimes even impossible.
This matter involves hundreds of thousands of children – those who have lived or currently live at “Points of Temporary Placement” (PTPs) – who, often together with parents or other family members, are experiencing difficult material circumstances and have minimal opportunities to overcome the psychological trauma of war and displacement from their home areas, who lack almost any support in issues of education, who lack protection from violence (including, unfortunately, domestic violence) or any chance of preserving ties to friends and family who have remained in Ukraine.
In writing this investigative report on the status of Ukrainian children taken to Russia and Belarus over the course of the war in 2022-2023, the authors have attempted to combine two approaches: to study the issue as both a violation of international law with regard to Ukrainian children and their families and as a violation of the basic rights of the child put forth in the UNCRC.
The Problem of Collecting Data and Estimating the Number of Children Taken to the Aggressor States During the Hostilities
Data from official Russian sources concerning the number of refugees were published for propagandistic effect and have varied widely. Independent human rights defenders believe that the officially announced data (more than 5 million arrivals) are inflated, but it is impossible to estimate the exact number of refugees (see the Civil Assistance Committee report, “How Many Refugees from Ukraine Are in Russia,” March 10, 2023). According to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) based on statistics from countries hosting refugees, 2,875,215 people were reported to be refugees from Ukraine in the aggressor state Russia and the co-aggressor Belarus as of May 9, 2023.
In this report, the word “refugees” is not used in the strict legal sense (having received refugee status) but refers to all people who have been forced to abandon the territory of Ukraine due to Russian military aggression. What follows are data from Russia Interior Ministry concerning those who arrived from Ukraine in 2022 with regard to their status in Russia and citizenship (as cited in the Civil Assistance Committee report from 2023):
- 75 people requested refugee status in the strictest sense of the term, of whom five(!) people were granted it;
- “Temporary refuge for a period of up to one year” was requested 98,758 times and granted 97,591 times; 65,374 arrivals from Ukraine living in Russia at the end of 2022 had this status (the difference can be explained by the fact that applicants/recipients of this status could leave Russia or receive citizenship or permanent or temporary residency there);
- “Forced evacuee” status, which would theoretically have been available to some among the post-February-24 arrivals, was granted to only 17 people in 2022 (it is unknown how many of them were from Ukraine);
- Russian citizenship was granted to 303,786 arrivals from Ukraine in 2022 (including to residents of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), whom the Interior Ministry counted separately), but we can say with a high degree of certainty that the majority of them were not refugees who arrived in Russia in 2022 but those who continued living in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson Provinces. Speaking of which, it bears mentioning that about 750,000 residents of occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces were granted Russian citizenship during the 2019-2021 period as a result of a mass issuing of documents (according to estimates by experts, this made up 95% of the 793,308 people who received citizenship in Rostov Province, to which people were systematically transported);
- At the end of 2022, there were 35,806 citizens of Ukraine who had temporary residency permits; 71,323 citizens of Ukraine had permanent residency permits at the end of 2022 (it is unknown how many of them arrived forcibly after February 24);
- Citizens of Ukraine who did not have any of the above statuses were registered with immigration (as is required for all foreigners in Russia) 1,154,384 times in 2022; arrivals from the so-called DPR and LPR (most likely holders of the unrecognized republics’ “passports”) were counted separately about 84,500 times. This statistic is irrelevant to estimates of arrivals to Russia after February 22, 2022, since it counts registrations rather than people.
Data concerning the number of children who found themselves in Russia is equally speculative in Russian sources: Russian news stories timed to coincide with the start of the 2022-2023 school year reported that about 550,000-600,000 refugee children were on Russian territory at the time, but less than half that number went to school on September 1, 2022. Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova reported that more than 730,000 children arrived in Russia from Ukraine and the DPR/LPR after February 24, 2022 (press conference at the Russian Foreign Ministry on April 4, 2023).
As of May 30, 2023, Ukraine has identified 19, 484 children who were deported to Russia and managed to return 371 children to Ukraine (see the government Web site Dity Viyny (“Children of War”)). The same source states that, based on public Russian sources, about 744,000 Ukrainian children have been deported.
In February 2023, Nikolai Kuleba, who works to return children as part of the Save Ukraine fund’s rescue mission, told Radio Svoboda that there have been more that 1.5 million Ukrainian children who have found themselves on Russian territory and territory occupied by Russia since 2014 (Radio Svoboda video reporting of February 7, 2023, titled “‘They Are a Nation and We Are Nobody’: Accounts from Deported Children”).
Belarus has more often been a transit country for Ukrainian refugees. While a major stream of people has moved through it in various directions, the proposed number of those who remained in Belarus at the end of 2022 was about 9,000 (data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) questionnaire using the Displacement Tracking Matrix tool for the periods from June 4 to August 5, 2022 and from September 1 to November 30, 2022). There are no data concerning Belarusian citizenship being imposed on refugees.
With regard to children who found themselves on Belarusian territory after February 24, 2022, there is significantly less information than with regard to those who found themselves in Russia. Among the published analysis, it is worth noting the preliminary report from the exiled opposition group National Anti-Crisis Management and the monitoring report from the Our House International Center for Civil Initiatives.
Categories of Children Relocated to the Russian Federation and Republic of Belarus
Ukrainian children who found themselves on the territory of Russia and Belarus after February 24, 2022, primarily fall into the following categories:
1) Children who have parents but became unaccompanied/children from institutions
- Children who at the moment of capture were at vacation camps or sanatoriums, as well as charges of children’s establishments that came to be on the opposite side of the front lines from their parents/guardians.
– Children in already occupied territories who went “on vacation” with their parents’ permission to Crimea, to southern areas of Russia or to Belarus, and then their places of residence were de-occupied.
– Children from unoccupied territories whose parents never gave permission for them to be taken to Russia, but the locations of their vacation establishments came under the control of Russian occupation forces in 2022.
- Children separated from their parents during hostilities or during forced evacuation to Russian territory (at Russian filtration points, for example);
- Children who lost their relatives during the war and were unaccompanied in conflict areas.
Children in this category were systematically relocated to Russian territory; children from children’s establishments on the territory of the so-called DPR and LPR started to be systematically taken to Russia even before the invasion, starting from the middle of February 2022.
The children were first kept in hospitals, camps, sanatoriums and other temporary shelters and then transported deep into Russian territory and housed there by children’s establishments. Some of the children who were unaccompanied by parents were placed under the guardianship of Russian foster families. Under the pretext of bypassing formal impediments to family placement and providing social and medical support, they were granted Russian citizenship. There is no data concerning the placement of unaccompanied children with foster families in Belarus.
Returning children to their parents on the other side of the front lines has been difficult when it has occurred at all: As a rule, the Russian side only surrenders children to their legal guardians in person, and for financial reasons not all parents and guardians can manage to travel the long road through the frontline Ukrainian regions and across the border. Returning children from children’s establishments is even more problematic.
“Vacationing” children arrive in Belarus from the occupied territories through Russia (from Rostov Province), and there is no data concerning the problems of returning them to their earlier place of residence. However, the situation regarding Ukraine’s de-occupation and resumption of control over its territory is changing, and the risk of extended separation from parents remains. About 1000 children from Donetsk Province were reportedly in the Dubrava camp in Minsk Province’s Soligorsk District in September-October 2022, there were 300 in April 2023, and there were plans to bring in roughly another 1000 in April and May. Some of the children arrived with the express permission of their parents, but the media has confirmed that there are unaccompanied children among the arrivals. For example, it has been reported that “Handicapped children from Donbas and Zaporizhzhia have arrived to recuperate in Belarus. Some of the children lost their parents in the zone of hostilities”
(Sputnik Belarus, April 25, 2023).
2) Children who went to Russia or Belarus with their parents/guardians
When families evacuated on their own, they also searched for a path of settlement on their own. When evacuation was organized en masse according to emergency procedures, to Russia, as a rule such families spend some time – sometimes a long time, more than a year – in PTPs (Points of Temporary Placement). Later on, these children’s families would receive legal status in Russia (refugee status, Russian citizenship according to a simplified process, temporary or permanent residency) and find work and housing, return to their earlier place of residence in Ukraine’s temporarily occupied territories or leave for European countries and obtain temporary protected status there as citizens of Ukraine. The most vulnerable people, without family or other ties in other countries, remain in PTPs the longest. At the same time, it is practically impossible for those who evacuated on their own to end up in PTPs.
The organized reception of refugees in Belarus (from Ukraine’s Chernihiv Province into Gomel Province) has taken place starting from February 2022 in three sanitoriums in Gomel Province with financial support from the humanitarian organizations that still exist in the country (UNICEF, IOM). Refugees are provided with free housing and food for three months following arrival. Within three months, they must register with the immigration service to receive additional protection and residency status. According to volunteer interviews, some families did not want to obtain this status due to the fear that they would not be able to return to Ukraine after requesting aid in Belarus. At the same time, refugees who have not been granted any official status have not been able to use state social support mechanisms. Self-organized volunteer groups have provided leisure for families with children, as well as delivery and free distribution of groceries. After the program for housing at sanitoriums was closed down, the IOW has provided direct housing aid to vulnerable Ukrainian families (temporary stays in a hostel). Belarus has not undertaken to provide benefits, payments or a system of housing compensation for Ukrainian refugees.
1. VIOLATION OF INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW WITH REGARD TO UKRAINIAN CHILDREN
Russian violations of international humanitarian law with regard to Ukrainian children – the IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War – has been documented by many expert groups (such as the coalition T4P (Tribunal for Putin Initiative),founded by the Ukrainian human rights defense organizations the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and the Center for Civil Liberties). Several important reports have already been released from both Ukrainian human rights organizations (for example, the Ukraine 5:00 a.m. Coalition’s report “Deportation of Ukrainian Citizens from Areas of Active Hostilities or from Ukraine’s Temporarily Occupied Territories to the Territory of Russia and Belarus,” (January 2023) and the report “Children in Ukraine: Almost a Year of the War” from the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research and the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation) and international ones. In particular, on March 15, 2023, a report was published by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, formed in accordance with UNHRC resolution 49/1 (March 4, 2022), of its investigation of human rights and international humanitarian rights violations in the context of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Many experts have spoken about the violation of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948); actions by Russian troops in Ukraine have been classified as genocide by a number of countries’ parliaments, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has called for an investigation of the crime of genocide (resolution 2495 (2023) of April 27, 2023).
Russia’s war crimes in relation to children are so glaring that the International Criminal Court named them specifically in issuing its arrest warrants for the Russian president and children’s rights commissioner.
Russia most fully presented its official position on issues of relocating children to Russian territory in the bulletin “Activities of the Russian Federation Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova to protect children during a special military operation” No. 1/2023 (April 4, 2023), as well as in Lvova-Belova’s public statements and interviews. It is to the commissioner for children’s rights that issues are delegated relating to the relocation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
1.1 Unlawful Relocation of Children: A Violation of Art. 49 of the IV Geneva Convention
In issuing its arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, the International Criminal Court referred to Russian violations of the Geneva Conventions and war crimes in relation to Ukrainian children as put forward in the Rome Statute: Art. 8(2)(a)(vii), “Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement,” and Art. 8(2)(b)(viii), “The transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory.”
Art. 49 of the IV Geneva Convention states: “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.” The exception is an evacuation in the interests of security, to take place strictly on a temporary basis within the bounds of the occupied territory with the greatest practicable extent of accommodation and safety. The article requires that the Protecting Power – a third country that performs the role of intermediary between the hostile countries – shall be quickly informed of any transfers and evacuations. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, there is no such country (Ukraine came to an agreement with Switzerland for the corresponding mandate in August 2022, but Russia did not acknowledge it). The Convention (Art. 11) provides that the role of intermediary may be performed by an international humanitarian organization (the Red Cross, for example).
The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” (Art. II). In referring to Russia’s violation of the convention in relation to Ukrainian children, the experts mean both the involuntary relocation of children and depriving them of ties to Ukraine and the Ukrainian identity, culture and language.
The UNCRC establishes the right not to be separated from parents (Art. 9) and the right to family reunification (Art. 10), and it requires states to combat the illicit transfer and non-return of children abroad (Art. 11).
Thus, violations related to unlawful relocation (Art. 49 of the IV Geneva Convention) include:
- the involuntary relocation of children not justified by safety considerations or on medical grounds;
- relocation “outside the bounds of the occupied territory” to Russian regions, sometimes very distant ones;
- a lack of required information on the relocated children;
- removal of children for extended periods and the lack of an organized return of children to their lawful guardians.
Russia’s official position regarding the relocation of children contains the following arguments: The evacuation was carried out with the aim of saving children from dangerous areas of hostilities; the parents voluntarily sent the children “on vacation”; children who had parents were not detained – families were quickly helped to reunite; children who were left without parental guardianship were placed with foster families in the best interests of the children, and the most common form of family placement in Russia is preliminary (temporary) guardianship, i.e. placement with a foster family for six months (eight months in exceptional circumstances).
Abduction Rather Than a “Humanitarian Mission to Evacuate Dangerous Areas”/”Voluntary Transfer of Children for Vacation”
The Russian side’s argument, about the appropriateness of evacuating children from the area of hostilities with the aim of saving them, is legitimate only in the event that the evacuation met the requirements established by humanitarian law (that it be temporary, provide for a safe and timely return to the previous place of residence and be communicated). As the UN’s Independent International Commission said in its report, “In none of the situations which the Commission has examined, transfers of children appear to have satisfied the requirements set forth by international humanitarian law. The transfers were not justified by safety or medical reasons. There seems to be no indication that it was impossible to allow the children to relocate to territory under Ukrainian Government control.” During the documentation of Russian war crimes, numerous instances have been noted of impeding the civilian population from evacuating to territory under Ukrainian control, blocking humanitarian corridors and shooting at the transport in which residents of areas of hostilities sought to leave for the Ukrainian side. In these circumstances, evacuating to the Russian side was the only opportunity to save oneself.
There is a particular brazenness in arguments that the children were removed with the aim of saving them, since Russia itself created the danger to the children, in a planned and intentional manner, no less. This is proven by the fact that the systematic removal of children from children’s establishments in the so-called DPR and LPR to Russia began in mid-February 2022, even before the full-scale invasion by Russian forces. At the same time, Russian regions were already adopting measures prepare to receive refugees (decrees from the executive bodies of Russian regions to organize points of temporary placement for refugees were issued before the invasion, including the decree of the Leningrad Province government dated February 22, 2022).
Ukrainian human rights defenders indicate that Ukrainian authorities did not have time to organize the evacuation of establishments (not only children’s ones) due to the suddenness of the attack and blocking of safe exit routes from the occupied territories:
“For example, I know that directors of these facilities were acting based on their own fear and risk. Because at the beginning, when they understood that the territory was being occupied, they started giving the children back to parents – those who had parents. And when the Russian arrived, these facilities were empty of half-empty. That’s what happened not only in Kherson Province, but in Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces. Obviously, the government has a responsibility for these facilities not having a chance to evacuate and not having an action plan in the event of occupation. It’s very important that government agencies at the province level make the decisions to evacuate closed facilities and to evacuate overall.” –
Alyona Lunyova, director of advocacy at the ZMINA Human Rights Center, March 13, 2023.
In cases where children were voluntarily transferred from already occupied territories to vacation camps, many parents did indeed agree to send their children for free for health reasons in an attempt to at least temporarily provide their children with safety and better conditions. However, one might doubt the willingness and awareness of the parents in their consent in many instances, since the very conditions of war and implicit threats from the occupation forces are factors of coercion. A report from the Yale School of Public Health (Kaveh Khoshnood, Nathaniel A. Raymond and Caitlin N. Howarth et al, “Russia’s Systematic Program for the Re-Education & Adoption of Ukraine’s Children.” February 14, 2023. Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale School of Public Health, New Haven) shows that there are many indications that this consent was coerced: In some cases, parents signed over power of attorney to an unnamed agent; in other cases, there are grounds to believe parents refused to send their children to camps but were ignored; specific elements of the parents’ consent (such as the length of stay and procedure for returning children to their families) have been violated.
Relocation of Children Outside the Occupied Territories to Distant Regions of Russia
According to the Yale School of Public Health report, the systematic removal of children from care facilities and other children’s establishments on the territories of the so-called DPR and LPR began no later than mid-February 2022; as other Ukrainian regions were occupied, children from Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv Provinces were taken to vacation camps and other establishments (the researchers tracked the outcomes for about 6,000 children). The research identified at least 43 facilities where children were relocated either for a short time or for an extended period. They were located throughout Russian territory, from nearby Crimea, Rostov Province and Krasnodar Territory to the Urals, Siberia and the Far East. This can be confirmed in Russian sources:
On February 19, 2022, a special convoy brought about 500 children from orphanages and care facilities in “the Donbas” to the Romashka sports and health camp near Taganrog, Rostov Province (reporting in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 19, 2023). Other reporting indicates that these children arrived from Donetsk and Vuhlehirsk care facilities, some of them turned up in Moscow Province, and 27 were put into foster care there (investigative reporting in Verstka citing the Moscow Province children’s rights commissioner, June 29, 2022).
On February 20, 2022, 74 orphans were brought to Rostov-on-Don from the Luhansk Children’s Home (official notice from the Rostov Province government, February 20, 2022). At that moment, before the Russian army invaded, there were already 6,500 Rostov Province’s PTPs, including 2,700 children.
On October 4, 2022, Novosti Lipetska reported on 38 8-to-17-year-olds brought in from the DPR who had lost their parents, inviting those willing to foster the children (the headline read, “Orphans from Donetsk People’s Republic Can Be Adopted in Lipetsk Province”). The children were place with various organizations in Lipetsk Province.
In early October 2022, about 60 children aged 5-16, including the disabled, arrived from orphanages in the DPR at the Naryshkin School and Care Facility in Oryol Province.
Reporting in Russian media indicate that children from Donetsk Care Facility No. 1 were dispersed to five Russian regions, among which are known to be Kirov Province (in the Volga region), where 39 children were placed in four care facilities and preparations were made to foster them (local media reporting, October 1, 2022), and Bashkortostan, where 32 children aged 7-11 found themselves and were dispersed among three family care assistance centers in Uchaly, Kumertau and the Kugarchin district (media reporting, October 25, 2022).
Maria Lvova-Belova’s Bulletin (April 2023) states that about 2,000 children from orphanages and care facilities in the DPR and LPR were relocated to Russian territory in February 2022 in response to an appeal from the leaders of the unrecognized republics to Russian authorities “to accept civilians on their territory”; children from the DPR were subsequently placed with Russian foster families or children’s institutions in Russian regions; All children from the LPR returned to their institutions, but some of them were subsequently placed under the care of Russian foster families. “A total of 380 orphans from the DPR and LPR were placed in Russian foster care families.”
Lvova-Belova’s press service explained that the children from care facilities were placed with foster families in Russian regions rather than the DPR/LPR because families objectively could not be found for them in the “republics”: “These are large family groups where the numbers of brothers and sisters in a family reach three to nine people, and these are children with disabilities, a difficult-to-place category that could not be placed within the territories of the republics for a long time. The children had been in the facilities for 5-9 years, and of course they dreamed of getting parents” (interview with Miloserdie.ru: “Russian Presidential Children’s Rights Commissioner Tells How Children from the New Regions Are Placed with Russian Families, and How They Are Returned to Relatives,” November 21, 2022).
This argument is refuted by Lenara Ivanova, the Republic of Bashkortostan’s family, labor and social protection minister, who said that among 10 children in a group that arrived in Bashkortostan (32 children ages 7-11 arrived in all), brothers and sisters ended up in different Russian regions (media reporting, October 25, 2022). Obviously, the desire not to separate brothers and sisters was not the reason for relocating children to Russia.
The Lack of Required Information on Relocated Children
Art. 49 of the IV Geneva Convention requires the occupying country to inform the Protecting Power – an intermediary country or a humanitarian organization that performs this role – of transfers and evacuations of the occupied country’s population.
Russia has declined to inform Ukraine of the removal of children and justified this by saying that its children’s rights commissioner had not received any requests from the Ukrainian side. Maria Lvova-Belova said at a press conference at the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry on April 4, 2023, when she was most likely speaking to Ukrainian parents who were searching for their children:
“As for the list of children, I am always curious – what lists? Let’s start with the fact that nobody has requested anything from us. Statements in the media and posts on social media are not an official channel. There has not been a single official request. You must agree that it’s a bit odd… Give us a list of parents who are searching for their children, and we’ll find them… These are mainly children from orphanages. They know they’ve been shot at for eight years. What lists?! What do I submit, and where? To the aggressors? To the rapists? If I ever give those lists, if I ever give those children to Ukraine, that’s when you can press charges against me.”
By “posts on social media,” she obviously meant the public request by Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk on her Telegram channel, which was addressed to Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova and Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova (March 18, 2023), to return to the Ukrainian side lists of orphan children and children deprived of parental care who are on the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine and Russian territory.
Maria Lvova-Belova’s bulletin confirms that the commissioner’s office promptly assists all lawful representatives of children on an individual basis, and it also is in contact with the Red Cross. The fact that children are relocated to Russian territory systematically but children are returned on an individual basis significantly complicates the reunion of children with their lawful representatives, and returning children who were removed as part of an establishment is even further complicated.
The Extended Stays of Relocated Children in Russia and Impediments to Returning Children to Their Lawful Guardians
Lovova-Belova’s office confirms that there were no impediments to returning children who found themselves in vacation camps on the other side of the front lines from their parents: Children were immediately returned both directly to their parents and through individuals acting under power of attorney (volunteers, for example); they did so on an individual basis even though Russian authorities, as an act of goodwill, could easily have created humanitarian corridors on Ukrainian-controlled territory or an organized pathway through European Union countries.
However, there have been many accounts from parents that they were permitted to pick up their children only in person, so the return of children has dragged on for an indeterminate amount of time. Ukrainian human rights defenders confirm that the practice of returning children by power of attorney was hardly adopted immediately – the first known instance occurred only in 2023 (Darya Kasyanova, program director of the SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine charitable foundation, in a BBC article, April 27, 2023). In order to reach children’s camps in Krasnodar Territory, parents had to go through several European countries (the Baltic states, Belarus) to get to Russia and then cross the country from north to south. Not all of them had passports or enough money. Many parents did not know about aid to return children, including financial aid, provided by the charitable foundations Save Ukraine and SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine.
According to the report from the Yale School of Public Health, the return of children to parents was allegedly suspended at approximately 10% of the camps where Russian authorities had sent them from occupied Ukrainian territory. There are reportedly at least four camps where children’s planned stays were significantly extended: Artek, Luchisty, Orlyonok (Crimea) and Medvezhyonok (Krasnodar Territory).
After being sent to the Medvezhyonok vacation camp (in Krasnodar Territory, near Gelendzhik) in August 2022, a 14-year-old boy was returned home to Balakliya in Kharkiv Province only at the end of March 2023. At first, his mother tried to pick up the boy on her own, but she was not able to do so immediately due to financial difficulties. When she tried to cross the Estonian border into Russia, it was revealed that she was barred entry to Russia due to an earlier minor violation of immigration rules. After complaining to Lvova-Belova’s office, the mother was allowed to return her child, not in person, but under power of attorney. The teenager was brought to Ukraine by a relative of another child in the same situation. The return was made possible by financial support from the SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine charitable foundation.
See the BBC Article dated April 27, 2023.
The story of a single father from Mariupol, Yevgeny Mezhevoy, became well known after he was separated from his three children during filtration in the course of evacuating Russian-controlled territory – the only possible way to escape in those circumstances under shelling.
The children were moved to a hospital in Donetsk, while Yevgeny was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Yelenovka, where he spent 45 days and underwent interrogation and torture. On May 26, 2022, Yevgeny was let go, but he could not see his children, since they were taken by bus as part of a group of 31 children to Rostov on May 27, and from there sent to Moscow by plane. The children ended up in the Polyany youth camp in Moscow Province. On June 16, the oldest communicated that the children were being prepared to be placed in an orphanage or adopted, and the children’s father had five days to pick them up. With help from volunteers, Yevgeny managed to quickly travel to Moscow Province and pick up the children. Then volunteers helped him and the children move to the European Union.
The Bulletin from Lvova-Belova’s office states that the majority of children who went “on vacation” returned to their legal guardians: Out of 2,360 children on vacation in October 2022, there were only two children left in Krasnodar Territory and 38 in Crimea as of April 3, 2023. On April 14, 2023, Maria Lvova-Belova stated on her telegram channel that “since October, 2,500 children have returned to their own families from vacation camps despite the difficulties that have occurred”: All the children had been returned from the camps in Krasnodar Territory, and there were eight children left in Crimea.
Children stuck at vacation camps were not the only ones facing delays on occupied territory or in Russian regions and difficulties with returning. There are instances of the systematic removal of children with disabilities in specialized facilities to facilities on Russian-controlled territory. In particular, this concerns the care facility at Oleshky (Kherson Province), where poor treatment of children took place under Russian administration.
In March 2023, a 16-year-old boy with autism was reunited with his mother after he was taken away along with other residents of a care facility in Oleshky (Kherson Province). The boy was living there on a permanent basis, and his parents visited him and regularly took him home for short periods. The parents’ access to the care facility was cut off after the Antonivka Bridge was shelled; the parents remained in Kherson, while the territory where the care facility is came under the control of Russian troops. The Russian administration appointed a new director at the care facility. In November 2022, the children were removed from the care facility, and the teenager ended up in a psychiatric hospital in Simferopol, which the parents learned of through Telegram channels. They had no contact with the child since the boy cannot speak, and due to mental needs the other children could not communicate where they were by cellular connection. The boy’s mother filed to obtain a passport with the aid of the Save Ukraine foundation and went to Crimea with a group of mothers in the same situation. The route went through Poland and Belarus, followed by a flight from Minsk to Moscow, from there to Rostov, Anapa and then to Crimea, where the boy was being kept along with six other children from the care facility in Oleshky in the Bilohirsk Care Facility for Children with Disabilities, not far from Simferopol. The mother was issued a medical certificate to the effect that the boy had arrived at the Bilohirsk Care Facility having suffered severe weight loss and bedsores, which could indicate that he had been restrained in bed under the new director at the care facility in Oleshky, since the boy is normally very mobile and does not sit or lie down. According to the mother, about 100 children from the care facility in Oleshky were dispersed to care facilities in Bilohirsk (36 people) and Skadovsk (the rest), and she feared for the children who had no relatives. Eight months passed between the child’s removal and his return to his mother.
See the Meduza Article dated March 31, 2023.
Children who were in sanatoriums at the time of the invasion also experienced difficulties reuniting with their families. A story is known of six children from a group foster home who reunited with their foster parents only in June 2022.
In March 2022, a group of 19 children being cared for by the staff of Mariupol’s Krupskaya Sanitorium remained in the sanitorium through the shelling. Six of them, from a group foster home, had been in the sanitorium since January and were supposed to go home to Vuhledar, Donetsk Province, in early March. On March 18, a volunteer tried to remove the remaining group of 17 children to Zaporizhzhia in an ambulance through an open humanitarian corridor, but that specific vehicle was not allowed through by DPR fighters. The children were sent to Donetsk and housed in a tuberculosis dispensary. Their foster parents and three other children were first evacuated to safe areas of Ukraine before they left for the EU. DPR social services were initially prepared to give the children only to their foster parents in person, but the children managed to be transferred under power of attorney. The family was reunited in France on June 24, 2022.
See the BBC Article dated July 18, 2022.
In a number of instances, children were in the care of school and children’s shelter directors were returned to Ukrainian territory, or they managed to leave for safe countries.
A group of 15 children from a shelter in Mykolaiv Province were initially forcibly taken to Kherson Province and then Russia. The director of the shelter managed to leave with the children for Georgia. Video reporting by ABC News, February 3, 2023.
In June 2022, the director of Mariupol Construction College returned two teenaged orphans, her official charges, from occupied Donetsk to Ukrainian Territory. During the shelling of Mariupol, the teenagers were in the basement of a college dormitory together with other students and the director. Several teenagers decided to leave on their own for Zaporizhzhia, but Russian troops did not allow them through to Ukrainian-controlled territory and sent them to Donetsk. Initially, the whole group was kept in a children’s hospital, and then some of them were sent to a children’s camp in Moscow Province. However, these two teenagers made contact with the director and asked him to take them with him. The director personally went to Donetsk and took away the children. The are continuing their college studies and restarting their work in Khmelnytskyi.
Reporting by 5.ua, April 20, 2023.
However, some children under the guardianship of the Mariupol Construction College director were taken to Russia and placed with foster families. One of them tried to return to Ukraine by reaching out to a lawyer, but was caught at the Belarusian border (Novaya gazeta Europe, April 4, 2023). Maria Lvova-Belova asserts the boy was the victim of a sting by “Ukrainian agents” and was not preparing to leave (press conference at the Russian Foreign Ministry, April 4, 2023).
Despite the fact that most children from vacation camps and other children’s establishments were able to reunite with their parents, the very fact of their extended stay in Russia can be considered a war crime. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine documented the following facts: demanding that parents come for their children in person, which not everyone could do quickly due to complicated logistics, risks to safety and financial difficulties; placing responsibility for seeking parents and establishing contact with them largely on the children (which made the search for parents especially difficult for children of younger ages); disheartening children by telling them that they might be placed with special facilities or foster families, which they understood to mean permanent adoption; instances of inadequately caring for children with disabilities. All of this led the commission to conclude that “Russian authorities violated their obligation under international humanitarian law to facilitate in every possibly way the reunion of families dispersed as a result of the armed conflict. Such conduct may also amount to the war crime of unjustifiable delay in the repatriation of civilians” (clauses 98-102 of the report of the commission).
1.2 Changes to Children’s Personal Status: A Violation of Art. 50 of the IV Geneva Convention
One clause of Art. 50 (“Children”) of the IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War states that an occupying power must not change their personal status. The following practices are important in the context of the situation of Ukrainian children: placing of children with Russian families (adoption vs. temporary fostering); granting children Russian citizenship; preserving children’s identities.
Having issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague Karim Khan pointed out in his statement (March 17, 2023), that “Incidents identified by my Office include the deportation of at least hundreds of children taken from orphanages and children’s care homes. Many of these children, we allege, have since been put into adoption in Russia. The law was changed in Russia, through presidential decrees issued by President Putin, to expedite the conferral of Russian citizenship, making it easier for them to be adopted by Russian families.”
Adoption or Temporary Fostering?
The ICC prosecutor’s statement spoke of the “adoption” of Ukrainian children in Russia. Until recently, the term “adoption” (usynovlenie) was used in the official press (in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, for example) by Russian officials, furthermore by those whose professional duty it was to make distinctions in the terms and categories for children’s family placement, and this was widespread in the media. The possibility of adoption was considered and even promoted by Russian authorities in the first months of the war, although, according to confidential reports from employees of child welfare agencies, there was an unspoken order from Lvova-Belova that no child could be adopted until their status as an orphan and lack of relatives were made 100% certain.
Putin: Have you personally adopted a child from Mariupol?
Lvova-Belova: Yes, thanks to you.
(A working meeting between the Russian president and children’s rights commissioner, March 9, 2022.)
“Right now, 31 orphan children are first in line for adoption. All of them were found by troops and volunteers in basements in Mariupol and Donetsk, and they are currently resting and recuperating.” (“120 Russian Families Apply to Adopt Orphans from Donbas and Ukraine,” an interview with Maria Lvova-Belova by Rossiiskaya Gazeta for Children’s Day, June 1, 2022. Adoption of the orphans is specifically spoken of several times in the interview.)
Lvova-Belova’s predecessor as children’s rights ombudsperson, United Russia State Duma Deputy Anna Kuznetsova: “In order to have the opportunity to transfer kids [from the DPR/LPR] to our foster families, we need to sign an international agreement, the State Duma needs to ratify it, and Russia needs to choose families for them. The transfer will take place as adoption.”
(An interview presented in a video and in investigative reporting by Verstka, June 29, 2022.)
“Russian families have adopted 350 orphan children from the Donbas, Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova said. Another 1000 children are awaiting adoption. ‘All this will [now] function within the framework of Russian legislation. All willing foster parents can take children into their families in the established manner. The only thing we can facilitate is organizing a meeting or, for example, we can bring the children, because there is an unsettled situation there, and not every family can travel the whole way [to meet a child],’ the ombudswoman said. According to her, 31 children were removed from basements in Mariupol: ‘We’re talking about children who were in foster families, whose parents for whatever reason left on their own, and the children were left in Mariupol.’ Maria Lvova-Belova was appointed Russia’s children’s rights commissioner by order of President Vladimir Putin in 2021. She has five adopted children and five of her own. Another 13 are under her guardianship.”
(Vedomosti, October 26, 2022.)
After the ICC warrant was issued, Maria Lvova-Belova began to emphasize that there had never been adoption of Ukrainian children, and the form of family placement became guardianship or custody, most of all preliminary (i.e., temporary). The bulletin from the commissioner’s office clarifies separately that the term “adoption” has been misused, and the type of care should be conveyed by the words “’guardianship’ or, with a large degree of convention, ‘foster care.’” During the press conference at the Russian Foreign Ministry on April 4, 2023, Lvova-Belova showed journalists documents specifically relating to the custody of her foster son Pilip, a boy from Mariupol.
Along with this, Lvova-Belova has repeatedly said and written that preliminary (temporary) guardianship/custody (which by law is for six months or eight months in exceptional circumstances) should become permanent in the interests of the children:
“All these children are placed temporarily, for six months. And this means that in half a year we will have to work out the mechanism or find a suitable solution so they stay in a family on a permanent basis. Our task today is to speak out in the interests of the children and improve their situations as much as possible” (“First Meetings Take Place of the Headquarters for Synchronization of Legislation of Russia, the LPR and the DPR on Matters of Family Placement for Orphan Children,” on the official Web site of the Russian presidential children’s rights commissioner, April 27, 2022).
“One girl of about six years old always hid behind her foster mother and was afraid to let her go for even a minute. She admitted that she was very worried mama could disappear somewhere. But now that the children have become Russian citizens, temporary guardianship can become permanent. Let all be well with them, and we will always be nearby, helping and supporting” (Lvova-Belova on her Telegram channel on the occasion of the first children from the DPR being granted Russian citizenship in Moscow Province, July 5, 2022).
From the point of view of children, especially those of a young age, the distinction between temporary and permanent guardianship, custody or adoption is non-existent. Most likely, those who told children that they would be transferred to an orphanage or adopted if their parents did not come for them have not wrestled with the distinction, either. Accounts from children who faced the risk of being transferred to a foster family or orphanage tell us that they saw these statements as threats of never seeing their families again.
Monitoring shows that in EU countries, temporarily appointed guardians sign statements that they have been informed that the children in their charge must be returned to their country of origin upon the end of hostilities. There is no indication that Russian temporary guardians sign on to similar obligations. Naturally, some kind of emotional bond forms between foster parents and children, but facilitating too close a relationship is not advisable in circumstances when the children are under temporary guardianship, much less when the foster parents are obligated to act with particular scrupulousness toward the children’s identity during the temporary guardianship. Some foster parents have publicly stated that they will not impede children from freely choosing their identity and returning to Ukraine, but that they understand the granting of Russian citizenship will make this more difficult:
“I said, ‘V., if you make your mind up to return, nobody is going to stop you.’ Of course, now it’s complicated because his citizenship is different. But that’s a fixable problem. A child ended up in a family, he lives in the family, grows up in the family, and he decides for himself where he will live after that, what he thinks of as his motherland.” –
Words from a foster mother who became guardian of a 13-year-old boy from an orphanage on the territory of the so-called DPR, from a BBC article, September 20, 2022.
From an opposite position, when Maria Lvova-Belova publicly discusses her experience of custody of the teenager from Mariupol, she emphasizes the permanence and inseparability of her emotional bond with him in every way: “I started to feel that this is my child” (on meeting Pilip), “He calls me Mom,” etc. Media reports formed the impression that Pilip was a complete orphan, so it came as a surprise to many that he has legal guardians in Ukraine with whom he seems to have had a good relationship, as discovered by Skhemy.
In response to a journalist’s question about the returned of relocated children to the territories from which they had been evacuated upon the end of hostilities, Maria Lvova-Belova answered that the decision to return would be made by the legal guardians, and as for children from institutions, “the heads of our new republics” would decide whether they would return to the institutions. With regard to children who do not like living in Russia, she answered that “nobody is keeping anybody here,” and that the parents/legal guardians of the children had the opportunity to leave for the EU or Ukraine. For children who had been placed with families, she allowed for the possibility of independently leaving for Ukraine only once they reach the age of 18 (Lvova-Belova’s press conference at the Russian Foreign Ministry, April 4, 2023).
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine concluded in its report that Russian authorities had deployed a massive campaign to place children with foster families to “create a framework in which some of the children may end up remaining permanently in the Russian Federation.”
Granting of Russian Citizenship to Children as Part of the Family Placement Procedure
Maria Lvova-Belova initially explained the need to grant Russian citizenship to children taken from Ukraine as an attempt to provide the maximum number of rights to orphan children:
“…The Russian president’s order yesterday to simplify the process for children from the Donbas and Ukraine to obtain Russian citizenship will allow us to solve a whole set of problems the children are facing, having lost their parents. These include benefits for orphaned minors, education, medical care, rehabilitation and rest and recuperation. And most importantly [it solves] the problem of placing orphaned children with Russian families.
(Maria Lvova-Belova’s interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta for Children’s Day, June 1, 2022.)
However, Russian citizenship is not required to observe all children’s rights and provide them with access to education, medical care and services: These rights are guaranteed to all children who live on Russian territory. It would be much more logical to enact regulations to ease obtaining medical coverage and registration, since it is problems with these documents that are a practical impediment, for example, to receiving expensive medical care, or to enrolling a child in school.
Guardianship/custody can also be applied for family placement of a foreign child; there is naturally already a precedent for doing so, as well as experience with housing foreign children in children’s establishments without changing their citizenship (such as the experience of providing temporary guardianship for foreign children while their mothers are serving time in Russian penal colonies, or the keeping of foreign children in “transit” children’s establishments). For guardians, temporarily taking a foreign child into the family comes with additional formalities (increased supervision from immigration agencies due to the child’s immigration status), certain emotional difficulties (knowledge of the fact that the child they have become attached to must sooner or later leave them and go to his or her own country) and extra effort (supporting communications with the child’s home country, maintaining the child’s identity).
Adoption truly does require that the child have Russian citizenship. Having created the conditions for children taken from Ukraine to expeditiously obtain Russian citizenship, Russian authorities have overcome the formal barriers to adopting Ukrainian children established by both Russian federal legislation and a number of international agreements to which Russia is a party.
These include paragraph 4 clause 1 Art. 165 of the RF Code of Family Law (adoption of a foreign child), Russian agreements to cooperate in the area of adoption with Spain, Italy and France, and also the CIS Convention on Legal Aid and Legal Relations in Civil, Family and Criminal Cases (known as the CIS Minsk Convention, 1993, see Art, 33, “Guardianship and Custody” and Art. 34, “Adoption”). These regulations state that in order for RF citizens to assume guardianship or adopt a foreign child, they must obtain the consent of the child’s lawful representative and the competent agency of state of which the child is a citizen; the child’s consent to the adoption must also be obtained when required by the legislation of the country of citizenship.
In practice, in instances with which we are familiar, Russian citizens have assumed guardianship of foreign citizens either directly in the child’s country of citizenship (the guardian needs to go to the child’s country of citizenship) or through the diplomatic mission of the child’s country of citizenship.
In accordance with the rules of Ukrainian legislation, in time of martial law, which is currently in force in Ukraine, only Ukrainian citizens who are on the registry of candidate adoptive parents and who live on Ukrainian territory under the government’s control have the right to adopt children who are on Ukrainian territory outside the government’s control. Foreigners and Ukrainian citizens who live abroad or in territories outside the government’s control do not have such a right with the following exceptions: They are relatives of the child; an adopted brother or sister of the child is already part of the family; the adoption process began before martial law was introduced in Ukraine.
Immediately after the invasion of Ukraine, at a meeting with RF Children’s Rights Commissioner Lvova-Belova on March 9, 2022, Putin promised to change the legislation according to her proposal in order to “rectify the bureaucratic delay” that was impeding family placement in Russia for orphan children from the Donbas. The result was Order No. 330 dated May 30, 2022 on the simplified granting of RF citizenship to orphan children and children without parental guardianship.
Strictly speaking, this order was declarative and purely propagandistic, and there was no need for it: Russian legislation already provided rules for the simplified acquisition of citizenship by children or legally incapacitated individuals over whom Russian citizens have established guardianship or custody, or who have been placed in Russian orphanage, education, medical or social-service institutions (Art. 27 of the Law on Citizenship, regulations introduced in 2014 and 2020).
Order No. 330 was the most recent of many changes to the law “On RF Citizenship” of May 31, 2002, to gradually apply to the citizens of Ukraine’s occupied territories. Based on these changes and the terminology used in them, one can trace how Russian aggression (and issuance of personal documents) spread first from “particular districts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces,” then to the DPR and LPR, further to Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Provinces, and then came to speak of citizens “of the DPR, LPR and Ukraine,” that is, it was spread to the entire country.
Stages of Changes to RF Citizenship Legislation in Relation to Expanding Anti-Ukrainian Aggression
On December 27, 2018, amendments were made to the law “On RF Citizenship” that gave the head of state the right to determine by executive order “for humanitarian purposes” which categories of foreign citizens and stateless persons had the right to apply for Russian citizenship according to a simplified process.
Within six months, the Russian president had signed two executive orders that mainly related to residents of Ukraine: Order No. 183 of April 24, 2019 (“On Determination for Humanitarian Purposes the Categories of Persons Who Have the Right to Apply for Admittance to RF Citizenship According to a Simplified Process”) and Order No. 187 of April 29, 2019 (“On Particular Categories of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons Who Have the Right to Apply for Admittance to Russian Federation Citizenship According to a Simplified Process”). By these orders, the following categories of people could receive RF citizenship according to a simplified process:
- Permanent residents of “particular districts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces”;
- Residents of a number of Ukrainian regions who are located outside Ukraine (which means inside Russia), specifically a) stateless persons and citizens of Ukraine without other citizenship (subject status) who were born and permanently live in Crimea and Sevastopol and who left there before March 18, 2014, their children, including adopted children, as well as their spouses and parents; b) citizens of Ukraine and stateless persons who live permanently in particular districts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces as they existed in April 2014 and who have a document conferring the right to live in Russia, their children, including adopted children, as well as their spouses and parents; c) foreign citizens and stateless persons who were unlawfully deported (or whose direct ancestral relatives, including by adoption or marriage, [were unlawfully deported]) from the territory of the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, their direct descendent relatives and spouses.
Subsequently, the procedure for residents of Luhansk and Donetsk Provinces to become RF citizens underwent several formal simplifications: in early 2020, the duty for citizenship application hearings was waived for residents of Luhansk and Donetsk Provinces (Federal Law of April 24, 2020 No. 129-FZ “On Amendments to Arts. 333-35 of the RF Tax Code”), and the procedure for extending their registrations in Russia was also simplified. Then, on April 17, 2020, the State Duma passed and the Federation Council approved the Law “On Amendments to FZ-62,“ which materially simplified the procedure for citizens of Ukraine (and of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Moldova) to obtain RF citizenship since it waived the mandatory requirement to give up one’s earlier citizenship and comply with the condition of five years of residence.
Order No. 187 of April 29, 2019 did not apply to residents of Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces who already had passports from the so-called DPR and LPR. To cover this “gap,” the Russian president signed Order No. 665 of November 4, 2020, according to which all holders of DPR and LPR passports, as well as their children, could submit documents to apply for Russian citizenship according to a simplified process. From that moment, having a Ukrainian passport ceased to be a mandatory condition when submitting documents. Making use of this order, by July 2021, more than 600,000 residents of the DPR and LPR received Russian passports (official statement by the first deputy chair of the State Duma committee for CIS affairs Viktor Vodolatsky, July 14, 2021).
In 2022, after Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine began, the simplified process for obtaining Russian citizenship was expanded to the residents of newly-occupied territories. Thus the Russian president’s Order No. 304 of May 25, 2022 covered, along with the so-called DPR and LPR, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Province and Kherson Province.
The Russian president’s notorious Order No. 330 of May 30, 2022 (on amendments to the already mentioned orders No. 183 and 187) raised the question of obtaining Russian citizenship according to the simplified process for Ukrainian citizens who are orphan children, children deprived of their parents’ custody and legally incapacitated persons. We must call attention to the following points:
- The order refers to “citizens of the DPR, LPR or Ukraine,” i.e., it is not limited to residents of the occupied territories.
- The following people can apply for Russian citizenship: a guardian or custody-holder who is a Russian citizen, the so-called DPR, LPR or Ukraine; the director of an organization for orphan children and children without parental guardianship that is located on the territory of the so-called DPR, LPR, Zaporizhzhia Province of Ukraine or Kherson Province of Ukraine; the director of a medical, educational or social-service organization that is located on the territory of the so-called DPR, LPR, Zaporizhzhia Province of Ukraine or Kherson Province of Ukraine – in all three of the listed circumstances it is stipulated that children and legally incapacitated persons who are under temporary guardianship or are temporarily housed in the facilities are not subject to the order’s effect, i.e., the simplified procedure for granting Russian citizenship does not apply to them; the director of a guardianship and custody agency fulfilling the obligation of a guardian and custody-holder in relation to a child without qualification for guardianship/custody of a temporary nature.
- The consent of a child aged 14-18 is required for them to obtain RF citizenship.
The Russian president’s Order No. 440 of July 11, 2022 expanded the simplified process for obtaining Russian citizenship to all Ukrainian citizens regardless of their territory of residence, as well as to stateless persons who had a registration for residence on Ukrainian territory (earlier, this right was assigned only to residents of Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia Provinces, Crimea and the so-called DPR and LPR.
Rules were later set down concerning citizenship for children living in the occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Provinces by the Federal Constitutional Law of October 4, 2022, No. 7-FKZ, “On the Admittance of Zaporizhzhia Province and the formation of the new subject – Zaporizhzhia Province – as part of the Russian Federation” and by the Federal Constitutional Law of October 4, 2022, No. 8-FKZ, “On the Admittance of Kherson Province and the formation of the new subject – Kherson Province – as part of the Russian Federation.” According to Art. 5 of both these federal constitutional laws, the residents of the territories and also their children obtained RF citizenship as a result of their being recognized as RF citizens (upon their swearing the RF Citizen Oath for persons 14 and older).
On May 8, 2019, the Ukrainian government adopted Ordinance No. 362 “On Ukraine’s Refusal to Recognize Passport Documents Granted by the Authorized Agencies of a Foreign Government,” which created an updatable list of designated RF Internal Affairs Ministry administrative centers for granting RF personal documents that Kyiv refuses to recognize as valid.
Thus, by assigning Russian citizenship to children taken from Ukraine, the authorities are pursuing a goal of keeping them in the country personally, and these actions, combined with the anti-Ukrainian propaganda and militarist orientation prevalent in the public square and school environment, are geared toward completely cutting off the children from the Ukrainian identity, culture and language.
After the ICC warrant was issued, Lvova-Belova began to argue that granting RF citizenship to children does not deprive them of Ukrainian citizenship and provides them with advantages and additional opportunities in life. This can be responded to as follows: Children, especially younger ones, do not understand these fine points of law, and receiving Russian citizenship (often with pomp and propagandistic Russian media coverage) becomes a sign of their ties to Ukraine being cut off. Nobody tells them how to exercise their right to Ukrainian citizenship. There is no agreement between Ukraine and Russia for mutual recognition of citizenship (dual citizenship). There are regulations in Russia that discriminate against RF citizens who have citizenship or residency in another country, including the obligation for holders of another citizenship or residency to inform others of the fact, and ignoring this regulation is prosecutable by processes of administrative (Art. 19.8.3 of the RF Administrative Code) and criminal law (Art. 330.2 of the RF Criminal Code). In 2022, Ukraine considered but did not pass a law that would have opened up multiple citizenship (only candidates for government employment were to be obligated to declare their other citizenship; the bill barred dual citizens from participation in the political process, access to state secrets or management of state property).
1.3 The Risk of Losing One’s Identity and Native Language: A Violation of Art. 50 of the IV Geneva Convention
The lack of opportunities for relocated children to study the Ukrainian language or obtain education in it should be considered a violation of Art. 50 of the IV Geneva Convention, which relates to the destruction of children’s identity (the wording of Art. 50 states that “Should the local institutions be inadequate for the purpose, the Occupying Power shall make arrangements for the maintenance and education, if possible by persons of their own nationality, language and religion, of children who are orphaned or separated from their parents as a result of the war and who cannot be adequately cared for by a near relative or friend”).
Despite public assurances from Maria Lvova-Belova that children can study Ukrainian (the press conference at the Russian Foreign Ministry, April 4, 2023), such opportunities have not been created in Russia. Not all refugee children have been able to continue online education in Ukrainian schools, not least because their schools in the temporarily occupied territories have transitioned to the Russian curriculum.
For the entire year of the war, representatives of the Russian authorities have made declarative statements about the need to provide children with the right to study their native Ukrainian (this concerned schools on the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Provinces and the study of Ukrainian as a native language within the general curriculum or as an elective according to the parents’ wishes); In April 2023, the Russian Education Ministry even prepared a textbook on “classical Ukrainian” for grades 1-4, and a book for grades 5-9 was in development (deputy minister Aleksandr Bugayev, reporting by TASS, April 5, 2023).
These gestures, transmitted through the propagandistic Russian mediascape, touched off roiling protests in Russia, and there is no doubt that Ukrainian children in the Russian education system will be the target of mass indoctrination while the Ukrainian language is pushed out of the classroom.
1.4 The Issue of Legally Assessing Russian Propaganda Directed at Ukrainian Children
There is a major discussion taking place over whether to categorize the Russian military’s actions in Ukraine as a genocide. As applied to children, it is often said that taking children to Russian territory, refusing to return them to Ukraine, transferring them to Russian families and indoctrinating them are deliberate and coherent actions geared toward cutting children’s ties to Ukraine, erasing the children’s Ukrainian past and destroying their identity, which qualifies as a deliberate wish to destroy a national group.
The study by the Yale School of Public Health discovered no fewer than 43 facilities throughout Russia, primarily summer camps, where children taken from Ukraine were kept and where they were forced to participate in patriotic education programs that were sometimes of a military bent. Journalists from TV Rain learned from RF Education Ministry correspondence with local child welfare agencies that “military-patriotic” education programs were provided in 21 of 24 children’s care facilities where more than 400 orphans were housed om August 2022 after being taken from Ukraine’s occupied territories.
In a number of instances, children taken from Ukrainian territory were used as mouthpieces for propaganda (for example, children from Mariupol took part in a mass patriotic performance at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on February 22, 2023). Particular note is worth taking of Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, who has publicly discussed her “successes” in raising her foster son, a boy from Mariupol.
Refugee children, having been traumatized by war, are vulnerable to militarist propaganda and the anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western ideology that permeates Russian schools.
“Some Ukrainian children consciously went immediately to cadet classes. Overall, they constantly play at war and really like all things military Our psychologists say that this is how they sublimate their trauma.” –
Russian volunteer working with refugee children in a PTP, Interview with ADC Memorial, March 2023.
2. STATUS OF REFUGEE CHILDREN IN RUSSIAN PTPS (POINTS OF TEMPORARY PLACEMENT)
The status of children who find themselves in Russian PTPs has not attracted as much public attention as other Russian war crimes against Ukrainian children: One more often hears about the deportation of orphan children, the imposition of Russian citizenship on them and their transfer to Russian families. Meanwhile, many children, including orphan children, spend extended periods of time in PTPs, at least several months and sometimes more than a year. It is difficult for them to exercise their rights: They experience problems integrating into a school environment, and they do not receive necessary psychological help at a time when practically all of them are traumatized by the circumstances of war, evacuation, filtration and emigration, and many are separated from other family members or have lost relatives.
On March 12, 2022, the Russian government issued Decree No. 349 “On Dispersal in RF Subjects of Citizens of the RF, Ukraine, DPR and LPR and Stateless Persons Permanently Living on the Territory of Ukraine, DPR and LPR, Forced to Leave the Territory of Ukraine, DPR and LPR, and Arriving on RF Territory in a Mass Emergency Manner.” To this end, the Russian government allocated 1.4 billion rubles from its reserve fund. It was proposed that the 83 Russian regions would accept 95,909 people (the table showed the number zero for the other three constituent entities of the federation, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sevastopol, i.e., there were no plans to send Ukrainian refugees to them). On March 22, 2022 Government Standard R22.3.19-2022 was issued, entitled “Safety in Emergency Situations: Stationary Points of Temporary Placement for Populations Affected by Emergency Situations” (it entered into force only on December 1, 2022).
It is quite difficult to hunt down how many PTPs were created and how many adults and children went through them. Official statements said that from March to August 2022, 647 PTPs were deployed in 59 regions, in which there were 33,000 people from the LPR/DPR (The United Russia Party’s Telegram channel, August 1, 2022). In late October 2022, the count was 807 PTPs (40 of them in Rostov Province) where there lived not only refugees from the so-called republics, but also those from the “new territories,” as Russian sources call them, i.e., the newly-occupied districts of Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Provinces (reporting by RIA Novosti citing an emergency services spokesperson, October 24, 2022).
Open-source information about PTPs cannot be considered reliable – it is fragmentary and politicized. In this section, we will be guided by reports received first-hand from volunteers who since the first days of the war have been providing humanitarian aid, organizing activities for children at PTPs in various Russian regions and helping families leave for Europe. The interviews were recorded in March and April 2023; the volunteers’ names are not shown out of concern for their safety.
According to the volunteers, there is a constant rotation not only of the people housed in PTPs, but of the PTPs themselves. The majority of refugees leave the PTPs after some time, either because they are settling in Russia (with relatives or acquaintances or in rental housing; the adults find work, and the children go to school), or (in far fewer numbers) they go to Europe. A minority are stuck in PTPs long term – these are vulnerable categories of people, including underprivileged families with children.
“I was in various PTPs in Rostov, Kursk and Tula Provinces. In Tula Province there are five or six PTPs. In March 2022, I was in Kursk Province – there were more than 10 PTPs there. Then some of them were disbanded, another one would open in another spot, and so on. That’s why it’s very hard to tell how many are operating in which regions. It’s the same with the people. In various PTPs where I was in person, the number of children bounced from 20 to 120. When we traveled between PTPs in summer as part of the children’s camps, we counted up that there were more than 1000 children taking part in our activities at 25 different PTPs.”
“Right now in Bashkortostan there are five PTPs operating. Two are on the edge of Ufa, and there are one each in the cities of Sterlitamak, Salavat and Tuimazy. Three of them are at tourist resorts, and two are at hotels. The first group of refugees arrived in August 2022. There were 100 people each at four of the PTPs, and 200 at the other. Now there is heavy turnover at them. Some leave, others arrive. In December 2022, for example, we had 44 people arrive. Then, from January to March 2023, about another 50 people arrived. All of them, for the most part, were from Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces. Now there are 50 people each at two PTPs, but more people are being brought in to join them. At the one where there were 200 people, there are more – roughly 250 people. There are still roughly 100 at the others. I don’t know how many are children.”
Sometimes, parents decide to remain at a PTP – there is no official time limit to stays in them (“some regions have introduced restrictions, such as Saratov Province, which allows able-bodied people to stay at PTPs for six months and those who have found work to stay one and a half months; in Stavropol Territory it is six months).
“After the arrivals go through the process of obtaining documents, the administration naturally wants them to look for work and start living independently. But that’s very complicated, since most PTPs are away from cities in forests, and there aren’t any logistics that would allow them to get to district centers unhindered. It’s also complicated because the majority of these families don’t have men, or sone person who can work. So the majority decide to simply stay at the PTP, where everything is stable and makes sense, where they get food and drink, are given humanitarian aid, and so on. Many are simply afraid to go to an unfamiliar city where they will have to rent an apartment, file for registration and buy everything themselves, and it still isn’t clear whether they’ll be able to live like that. Overall, out of the two options, the clear majority choose to stay at the PTP. There are also those who find jobs at the PTP site or nearby, in a store, or as a janitor in a preschool or in some other nearby place.”
After mandatory filtration, which involves checks of documents and belongings, a body search and an FSB interrogation, refugees are dropped off at so-called “sorting” PTPs in border regions – Rostov, Belgorod, Kursk and other provinces Rostov Province has the most of them: Even before the invasion, 282 had been prepared (head or the Russian Emergency Services Ministry, Interfax, February 19, 2022), the largest of which was opened at the Krasny Kotelshchik sports complex in Taganrog. Refugees are usually not kept at these transit PTPs for long, and they are dispersed to other PTPs in various Russian regions. In early March 2022, so-called “evacuation convoys” were organized out of Taganrog, which hauled refugees to PTPs in various Russian regions, including distant ones in the Urals, Siberia and the Far East. In early January 2023, there were 41 PTPs operating in Rostov Province where 4,564 people lived, and about 40,000 people have gone through them since the start of the invasion (according to the governor of Rostov Province, reporting by RIA Novosti, January 22, 2023).
“Everyone in the PTPs has gone through filtration. All of their personal belongings were thoroughly searched, and their phones were completely checked. Many people, knowing ahead of time that their phones would be checked, deleted everything from them that could attract attention from the special services. There was also the ‘interview.’ On the whole, I can say that I didn’t hear any stories that would have shocked or frightened me. Judging from the children’s accounts, I got the sense that they perceived the filtration procedure like it was a typical customs check.
“After all these checks, they first ended up at border camps where they would stay for a few days, after which they were dispersed among the PTPs in various regions of the country. You couldn’t choose your PTP – they take you where they take you. But, as far as I know, you could somehow get passage to a particular region from the Russian Emergency Service Ministry’s list if there was room there or a need – relatives, for example.”
Housing Conditions at PTPs
As a rule, PTPs were organized in buildings at children’s camps, resorts or hotels with various conditions for families with children. Many PTPs are in rural areas distant from cities and towns, so refugees have problems accessing necessary services and assistance (PTPs do not pay for trips to a clinic or legal office), not to mention searching for work. Refugees are provided with three meals a day; as a rule, an afternoon snack is prepared for children. On rare occasions, the practice of renting regular apartments from private citizens with government money has been noted, a novelty for Russia (Nizhny Novgorod and Penza Provinces).
“One PTP might have various buildings. In Kaluga Province, for example, we worked at a PTP on a children’s campsite. There were different conditions for different categories of refugees. There was a building for families with children – that had a shower and toilet for each suite of two rooms. Families with young children (up to a year) are moved into better-equipped buildings. The others, as a rule, were moved into typical conditions – into buildings were there were two showers and toilets per floor. There is a stand-alone building with a cafeteria, where they go three times a day. There are washing machines on each floor of the buildings. Detergent and other necessities are provided for free. Other PTPs were opened at sanatoriums. They also had various conditions, but better than at the children’s campsite. A sanatorium always has a shower and toilet with the room.”
“In the PTPS where I was personally, in Rostov, Kursk and Tula Provinces, everything was set up in various ways. Some were very small, some were large. Some were accessible to almost everyone, some were under armed guard. The closer it is to the Ukrainian border, the more tightly controlled. All of them were opened at resorts, hotels or children’s camps that had been reequipped on the fly into permanent housing. As a rule, there is always a residential building with rooms. Sometimes a family is given two connected rooms, and then the parents and children live separately, almost like in their own apartment. In some places, there is a system of suites, and then the family lives in its own suite, that is, in even more comfortable conditions. In some places, amenities are right in the room, in other’s they are on the same floor. There is always a big cafeteria. People are fed there regularly, three times a day. In some places, food is cooked on site, in others they organize food deliveries and simply distribute it.”
Five facilities were designated for refugee housing in Leningrad Province before the invasion (two children’s vacation camps and three retirement homes); By the end of March, there were already nine such facilities (hotels and sanitoriums were added); In July, the majority of these were closed (decrees of the Leningrad Province government on housing people, the first of which was dated February 22, 2022). The largest PTP was the one at the Tsaritsyno Ozero resort, 10 km from the city of Tikhvin, which was not on the initial list of facilities prepared for this purpose. On April 10, a special train from Taganrog arrived with a large number of people (the majority from Mariupol) whose numbers volunteers estimate at up to 1,000. As of the time this report was written, there were about 270 people there, of whom 70 were children.
“The PTP at Tikhvin was opened at a resort site that during Soviet times had been a care facility for children with cerebral palsy. Then the building ended up in private hands. When the war began, the administration paid the owner big money, and the PTP will be operating there until September 2023. After that, I think the contract will be extended for a while. All the refugees were taken there by train on April 10, 2022 – it was an evacuation train from Taganrog, where there is a major sorting PTP. The clear majority were from Mariupol. There were initially more than 1,000 people. Then, by summer, when we began going there permanently, the administration told us that there were about 600-800 people left, of whom 100 were children.”
In every PTP, refugees are helped in an organized fashion to file for documents – offices are established where representatives of various government agencies and institutions accept applications to file for the documents needed to obtain legal status, employment and public benefits. In spring 2022, when the main wave of refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk Provinces arrived in Russia, representatives of government agencies were permanently present at PTPs.
“In Kaluga Province, as soon as the PTPs were opened, representatives of various government agencies and institutions were constantly arriving: Tax agency employees filed for individual tax numbers and other things, the pension fund registered people and assigned insurance numbers, the immigration service accepted applications for citizenship or for temporary refugee status, Sberbank representatives filed for their bank cards, the employment office registered those willing to work or immediately offered them work, since they had a list of factories and plants that needed extra hands, and so on. Now, as far as I know, they only come upon request, mainly when there are new arrivals again. All the services they offer are free. In rare instances, there are some things that you need to pay for, but usually the district administration takes on these expenses.”
“Practically from the day they arrived at the Tikhvin PTP, absolutely all the government agencies actively helped all the arrivals and took responsibility for the documents and obtaining legal status for the foreigners. There were no problems with filing. In an expedited process, they were all given mandatory medical insurance policies, filed for individual tax numbers, pension insurance numbers, etc. Those who wanted to submitted documents for citizenship, others filed for temporary refugee status.”
As a rule, while living in a PTP, refugees do not receive temporary registration for place of residence there, and registering somewhere else (for a person) is practically impossible. So many people, lacking temporary registration in Russia, faced problems with receiving public assistance and placing their children in school or daycare.
“The problems started later, when these people started obtaining citizenship. Their Russian personal documents contain their Ukrainian registrations, often for houses that don’t exist anymore, which have been wiped off the face of the earth. If these people continue to live in the PTP, in certain instances they are required to present a temporary registration in Russia, but the PTP has refused to give them a temporary registration, and nobody will register them anywhere. They have to solve the problem manually. If they come to St. Petersburg and can’t file for a temporary registration there, then problems begin in many areas. They can be stopped on the street and fined, their child might not get into preschool, and then these people have to push for spots through the human rights council. There are also problems when filing for pensions, disability benefits, and so on.”
In practically every region, volunteers and social organizations actively helped refugees living in PTPs. It is they, and not the government agencies, who bring and distribute humanitarian aid (clothing, hygiene products, school supplies, medications, etc.) and organize medical care and therapy to those who need it.
“When everything started in March 2022, it was very difficult for outside people to get to the PTP sites. Everything was very strict; all volunteers were recorded and checked upon entry. But at the same time, help was pouring n from all sides. Regular people were bringing everything they could to the gates: canned goods, toys, diapers, and so on. By the end of April, the commotion was gone. Now, the Red Cross and various volunteer initiatives and foundations are actively doing everything. Somebody is responsible for clothing, another buys and delivers refrigerators and other appliances, another brings medicine. Our group constantly works together with PTP residents via group chat. Refugees write what they need there, and we make lists, divide them among ourselves and try to find everything they need. Most often, this is medicine, cleaning supplies, hygiene products, underwear, and so on. They also come to us when they need serious medical care: difficult operations or paid services. We either help people as much as we can here in Russia, or we offer to help them go to Europe if we manage to come to an agreement and find money for the move.”
Sometimes, PTP administrations get in the way of volunteer activity out of fears of public criticism or the dissemination of information about how people live in PTPs. However, PTP administrations are forced to tolerate the presence of volunteers, since the volunteers are functionally taking on the task of providing for many of refugees’ needs.
“Access to the Ufa PTP was limited for volunteers, since the administration claims that before us there were other ‘sham volunteers’ who wrote to various media outlets about poor organization and a bad attitude toward the refugees. It was a high-profile incident, and it seems there were even stories in the foreign press. After that, access there for volunteers was closed town in response. And on the whole, you can’t express any kind of antiwar position there, so not only we, but refugees who don’t support the Russian authorities, keep quiet. We’ve had to spend a lot of time and energy to convince the administration to let our volunteers into the PTP, and for now there have been no incidents of any kind. On the whole, many processes are now tied directly to the volunteers, so they won’t kick us out.”
Issues of Education Among Refugee Children
It is difficult to assess inclusion in education among refugee children in Russian schools (the open-source data is fragmentary and does not inspire confidence), but pro-government sources claim that fewer than half of the newly-arrived children went to school at the start of the school year (there is no reliable information about early-childhood education).
For children to enter Russian schools, parents are required to submit an extensive list of documents: proof of a parent’s identity, the child’s birth certificate, a guardianship or custody document, proof of the right to stay in Russia, registration at place of residence or notice of submitting documents to file for registration and others. Another problem is the mandatory nature of children’s medical records and proof of medical examination. Instances have been reported of children being denied enrollment at school for not having a temporary registration and of the problems being solved by complaining to the ombuds offices or the higher-level agencies in charge of education.
Volunteers have observed that in some regions, children did not take any test before enrollment and were enrolled in the grades that corresponded to their ages, and that a school bus was arranged for distant PTPs:
“In Kaluga Province, all the children from the PTP went to study at school almost immediately after arriving at the PTP. They did not go through any testing, and their documents didn’t matter. That is, there could have been no documents at all, but the child was accepted all the same.”
“I began going to PTPs in Tula Province in spring 2022, and at the time some children were finishing their studies remotely at their Ukrainian schools. But not all of them. I don’t know how the process went with placing them in Russian schools, but I certainly know that starting in September, absolutely all of the children I talked to went to school regardless of whether they had stayed at the PTP or moved somewhere with their families.”
“There were 40 children at the time at the largest PTP in Bashkortostan (a quarter of the total 200 refugees), and at other PTPs there were fewer than 10 children. All of them were almost immediately enrolled in schools, and already by September they had started studying, and in the grades that corresponded to their ages. It did not happen that children were sent to study at the previous grade, like they did in Leningrad Province, for example. And now they’re already finishing the school year. For students in Ufa, for example, they organized transportation since the PTPs are on the edge of town and getting to school was a problem for the children.”
However, in other regions, children went through testing before enrollment and ended in grades a year or even two younger by the end of the school year. This is what happened to children who ended up in the Tikhvin PTP in Leningrad Province:
“There are currently 67 children in the PTP. All of them are with their parents or with their grandparents, mainly from Mariupol, Rubizhne and from Donetsk. All of them arrived on the evacuation train on April 10, 2022. They all went through a thorough medical examination upon arrival. All the parents were offered attendance at a preschool or school. All of them agreed, and the children almost immediately started going to school. This was the end of March/beginning of April. The students went through testing. Due to a serious difference in the curriculums and different languages of instruction in Ukrainian and Russian schools, some children could not pass the tests and they were assigned to a grade a year or even two years younger.”
“Although most parents were worried about their children’s education, they couldn’t do anything. A testing process had to be organized, but nobody knew how to conduct it because there is a significant difference between the curricula in Russian and Ukrainian schools. When we arrived there in April 2022 and brought humanitarian aid, the administration happened to be working on this issue. They said that while all the children were Russophone and spoke practically without an accent, it was Russian that was the problem for all of them, since in Ukraine they had studied in Ukrainian. Russian was taught to them as a subject. Here, all the tests and exams are in Russian, but they only know the wording and definitions in Ukrainian. That was a serious obstacle to taking the tests and determining their level of knowledge. In the end, when they started taking the tests, a serious lag behind the curriculum was revealed, and the children were enrolled a grade or even two grades younger than their ages. For many, this was a horrible tragedy. Imagine a 15-year-old child, who considers himself a grownup, ending up among 13-year-olds. It was a major stressor. In the end, not everybody went to school in April, since the school administration came to an agreement with parents that [the children] would boost the knowledge and by the new year they would be enrolled in the grades that corresponded to their ages.”
Differences between the Russian school curriculum and the one children were learning by in Ukraine, extended pauses in the educational process first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then due to the start of war, and also the major stress of getting used to new conditions of study seriously affected children’s academic success. Many of those who went to Russian schools in grades determined by age in spring 2022 had poor marks in many subjects by the end of the school year that did not allow them to move on to the next grade or, for high school students, to receive their diplomas. Volunteers often tried to solve the problems Ukrainian children faced during the educational process by hiring private tutors for the children who were falling behind.
“All of the children I spoke to were Russophone. Many of them said that in Ukraine, they had Ukrainian as a subject, but the schools themselves were Russophone. I asked them if they needed help with any subject, if there were any difficulties picking up the material. When there were questions, we tried to solve them: We looked for tutors or came to agreements with schoolteachers for extra lessons. From what I could tell, their main difficulties were due to the fact that they had missed so much. First, there was the coronavirus and they were studying remotely, which didn’t lend itself very well to picking up the course material. In any case, the children said that remote schooling was not very well organized and, as a result, they missed an entire year of the curriculum. Then the war started, and the education process just shut down. Because of that, many children couldn’t pass the tests in Russian schools and they were left behind for another year. But when I talked to the children about that topic, it wasn’t a problem for them. For the most part, they took it in stride.”
Poor Internet access is a serious obstacle to children’s education.
“We try to find tutors for those who fall behind according to the curriculum. As a rule, these are online lessons. Here it’s worth noting the problem that many PTPs are not hooked up to the Internet, and refugees are forced to use mobile Internet, but most of the families hardly ever have money on their phones, so in practice they don’t have it. So the children don’t always have a connection and an opportunity to study. In some PTPs, there are even computer classrooms for remote schooling, but children are not allowed to use them everywhere. We’ve tried to get permission, but for the time being we haven’t received it. We’ve found a workaround in Tula Province cities with the help of libraries. As a rule, there is the opportunity there to study on a computer using the Internet. We signed up our children there, and the librarians are very amicably disposed and allow them to study there.”
“There was the time that members of the St. Petersburg human rights council and dome city council members brought tablets and laptops to students in the PTP. They had been bought with some donor’s money. But it turned out that there was no high-speed Internet at the PTP site. Due to remoteness from the city, there were major problems with the mobile connection so that you had to search for a place with a signal even to make calls. Because of that, our efforts finding laptops turned out to be useless. But now it seems that the children who stayed in the PTP go to the library in Tikhvin, where there is Internet.”
According to volunteers working in PTPs, a few of the children do not go to Russian schools, since they would prefer to finish their education remotely at Ukrainian schools. They also suffer due to a lack of Internet access.
“The children who study remotely and live at PTPs can’t get Internet there, and they have to go to the library in Tikhvin to study there. I don’t think the administration dealt with the problem of Internet access at all at the very beginning, and they still haven’t done so – it’s a violation of the children’s right to an education, since in real modern life, the process of education is inseparably linked to Internet access.”
According to our respondents, the faculty in many schools, especially in small towns, was not ready for the admission of a large number of students who were studying in a different country, and who had survived war and the loss of friends and family. The lack of experience and expertise in working with traumatized children, and the toxic atmosphere of militarist propaganda in Russian schools, led to conflict and aggressive behavior from teachers.
In one school in a rural area of Kaluga Province, instances were discovered of aggressive behavior by teachers toward students on ethnic grounds after children from a PTP were enrolled.
“In March 2022, when everything was just starting, there were 80 school-aged children in the Kaluga PTP, and they were all sent to one school in a group. This was a country school where 100 children had been studying before. The school was completely unprepared for the number of children to almost double all at once, what’s more, with children who nobody knew. Since these were Ukrainian children, political undertones immediately came up in relations with the teachers and between the children themselves. The teachers immediately got very tense. There were many instances when the teachers insulted the Ukrainian children for their ethnicity in vulgar language. On top of that, the teachers simply didn’t know what to do with them, since almost all the children had PTSD. They would shout, disrupt lessons and generally behave unconventionally. Nobody prepared the teachers for that. For the most part, the faculty are women over 50, and they have no idea how to behave in such a situation. There are also no trained psychologists in the schools, and correspondingly no therapy is provided. As a result, they started pressuring the children, shouting at them, behaving aggressively, because none of them could deal with their emotions. The Ukrainian parents, for their part, began conflicting with the teachers and writing to the prosecutor’s office with complaints of their children being insulted and treated badly overall. Inspections began at the schools. Teachers started getting reprimands.
“There were also frequent instances of such insults from the Russian children. On the whole, they view the Ukrainian children as enemies. Bullying was very widespread. This particularly intensified when the mobilization began.
“After all these incidents, the Ukrainian children were split up among three different rural schools, and it seems the situation has normalized.”
Bullying and other aggressive behavior toward Ukrainian children from their classmates is a major problem in many Russian schools. From open sources, we are aware of various instances of harassment against Ukrainian children on ethnic grounds: For example, in November 2022, the online news outlet Vot Tak reported on flagrant instances of harassment against Ukrainian children in Moscow schools. The interviewed volunteers confirmed that such instances are common.
“If we’re talking about how Ukrainian children are accepted by their classmates at school, I know for certain that there are cases of bullying at St. Petersburg schools. These cases became especially more frequent when the mobilization began. The local children told children arriving from Ukraine that because of people like them, their dads were going to war. There was a case when a boy from a PTP was speaking with a classmate and said he was a Ukrainian and proud of it. He was punched in the face for that. After that incident, he didn’t go to school anymore but continued studying remotely at a Ukrainian school.”
“Not nearly everyone developed good relationships at school. There have been ethnic conflicts. Sometimes Ukrainian children are harassed. Sometimes it’s even the teacher, who should in theory be breaking up the conflicts, who is instigating them. This expresses itself in very strange questions that are asked of Ukrainian children. It’s clear that the teacher adheres to a viewpoint that defends, as you might call it, Russian propaganda, and that viewpoint is being imposed on the children. This expresses itself in a biased attitude during the education process. On the whole, this behavior creates an unhealthy and hostile atmosphere in schools where Ukrainian children are concerned.”
The interviewed volunteers also brought up positive examples of good relations between arrivals and local children, and of teachers’ involvement and goodwill.
“I can give this example of children socializing at school. We were at a PTP in a small town during the summer. Our task was to make it so the children from the PTP would start socializing with local children, and we managed to do that. Initially, the local children would come on their own to join us, and they were added to a group chat and socialized there and outside. That’s how they developed reasonably close friendships with each other.”
“There are many examples of schools where children feel pretty good, and that’s clear not only from what their classmates and teachers are doing, but also from their own stories and the impressions they have. More than once, I’ve come across teachers who are very interested in helping the children develop their abilities, bringing them up to speed in the subjects they are having a hard time with, etc. Children have written to me personally that teachers, having seen their abilities, have proposed that they take part in a competition, for example.”
The lack of specially trained educators at school or help from specialists at PTPs is often a cause of special-needs children being excluded from the education process.
“Special-needs children with mental problems have the hardest time, since neither the PTPs nor the schools have either tutors or psychologists who could work with them. We tried to find them through the education authorities, but nothing worked because very little money is assigned to that. But there are no such specialists at the PTP sites, and the PTPs have a different task – giving people housing and feeding them. There are no such opportunities as schools, either. At our school, for example, there are only eight teachers, and none of them can work separately with these children. As a result, these children either don’t go to school at all, or they go with everybody and don’t understand anything at all. It ends up being that nobody needs these children, and nobody is assigned the task of working with them.”
Children in PTPs from dysfunctional families, whose parents suffer from various addictions, fall away from school. Domestic violence is widespread in such families, which sometimes leads to child welfare agencies removing children from them. Volunteers note an inadequate response from the police and child protection agencies. Here it is worth noting that domestic violence has been decriminalized in Russia, and bills to combat it have been sabotaged under the pretext of defending “traditional values.”
“Domestic violence and drunken fights happen very often at the Tikhvin PTP. The police come and talk to the victim and the perpetrator, but they never file any charges, since they just don’t have to. There have been instances when they took a drunken father who had beaten his wife and child, put him in their back room and waited for him to sober up.
“There is quite a bit of violence against children overall. Parents beat them almost constantly. And the adults brawl with each other. They brawl over cookies, over laundry detergent, over anything that they get from the humanitarian aid. The fight we saw last time was between a husband and wife. The wife got jealous about some other woman and started yelling at him. The husband hit her head against the wall. Their child, who was so frightened after what he lived through during the move, was watching all of this.
“When a family has problems with alcoholism or incidents of violence toward children, child welfare comes to the PTP and has a talk with the parents. As a rule, that’s as far as it goes, because to child welfare, these people are Ukrainians and they’re afraid of doing the wrong thing. Overall, all the agencies – the prosecutor, the police, child welfare and so on – they always come down on the Ukrainians’ side in almost any dispute, because they are afraid of a scandal, of getting hung out to dry if they do the wrong thing regarding the refugees that could end up in the media or human rights organizations.”
“There was an incident where child welfare took away a child because the parents were completely irresponsible and didn’t look after him. They didn’t even get him ready for school and weren’t going to have him educated. One time they got drunk, a fight took place, the administration called the police and the mother bit one of the officers on the stomach. Before that, the same family beat up a grandmother and broke her hip. After all these incidents, they took away the child, but then, for reasons I’m not aware of, they brought him back. There was another incident in a Gypsy family. The parents there also drank ceaselessly, and the child was in constant danger. He was taken away, but then he was also brought back.”
With regard to children below school age, the situation depends on the opportunities in a given region and the parents’ willingness to put their children in preschool. In Kaluga Province, a preschool was opened directly onsite at the PTP, and other preschools were also available for refugees. According to volunteers, children from the PTP in Ufa were not enrolled in preschools for an unknown reason, and mothers by themselves were not able to work full time. In other cities in Bashkortostan – Sterlitamak, Salavat and Tuimazy – children went to preschool. There were no formal problems with preschools for residents at the Tikhvin PTP, but our respondents state that for unknown reasons the children from the PTP do not go to them, and they spend their time with their parents or grandparents.
Organization of Children’s Rest and Leisure Organized by Volunteers
In many PTPs, opportunities for children’s rest and leisure are limited or are not included at all.
“In some PTPs where we were in Kaluga or Belgorod Provinces, children’s rooms were specially set up. There they had toys, books and some kind of equipment. But there are also PTPs where there is nothing except the outdoor playground. When it’s cold, there’s nothing to do at those playgrounds, and if they aren’t studying, the children sit in the hallways for days at a time looking at something on their phones.”
“As for children’s leisure, there are children’s rooms at the Tikhvin PTP, but they are quite small. There are minimal opportunities for bigger children to do anything there. Nothing is included in the PTP building itself; there is an asphalt landing in front of the building where adults go to smoke. Beyond the landing, there is a small plot of land where some pine trees are growing. After that, there’s just a fence. Granted, there’s a lake near the PTP site. That is probably the only place where children can have a good time, but only when it’s warm. In winter, it all looks pretty bleak. There is also a children’s camp near the PTP site that you can see from the PTP windows, and we went to the director to ask if they could allow us on the soccer field so the children could play, and they let us go there a few times.
The volunteers state that the free leisure pastimes for children offered with government assistance are either conducted as a formality and are less popular, or there is little information about them, or the parents don’t have the energy and willingness to support their children’s participation in these activities.
“Troupes from various houses of culture are forcibly volunteered to go to many PTPs. The region’s administration requires them to go to the PTP, put on some kind of show and report back on it. The children are also forced to go to them. In most cases, these shows are of low quality, and it would probably even be better not to have them at all. The performers and the viewers can tell that none of them particularly want to do all this, so it all looks quite sad from the outside.”
“In many cities, all sorts of free clubs were organized for children from the PTPs. In one city in Tula Province, they made the swimming pool free for children and adults. The pool administration has a list provided from the PTP, and a person can go there, confirm who they are and use it for free. But the problem is that almost nobody tells this to the actual PTP residents. Some people simply don’t know that they have the opportunity to use the pool for free or send their child to some sort of club.
There is a quite large category of people who know but don’t make use of anything that they’re offered, because before they left, they were completely swamped with work and errands, and they haven’t gotten used to a different way of life. Some simply don’t have the energy. People are busy with work, filing for documents, looking for opportunities to move to another country or to another city, and they just aren’t in a state to go anywhere or take their children. I’ve tried to help the children with that – help them sign up for these clubs, but most often the children give up on them.”
By agreement with the PTP administrations, volunteer organizations lead children in workshop lessons and sports, and they organize excursions and entertainment even onsite at PTPs.
“To give children something to do, we got permission from the administration to put on a summer camp for them. We were given permission, but for a very short period and with seriously limited opportunities. Somehow, we placed a big tent on the grounds, put wooden poles on the street and set up a play area. Various instructors worked with the children, we did a lot of drawings, played, made all sorts of installations and so on. Unfortunately, after our program ended, everything that we built was taken down the next day and the children had nothing left. They took down the seesaws, the ropes course, and everything else.”
“In Ufa, the volunteers made sure the children’s leisure was wonderfully organized. For example, the volunteers created a computer room in the PTP were 200 people were living. There were also game rooms there. The children themselves get together with the volunteers to put on theatrical productions of some kind and arrange dance parties. Entertainers are always coming, the volunteers take the children to the climbing wall, and so on. So overall, in that particular PTP, everything is good with leisure, but that is all organized only because of ambitious groups of people and donors. The authorities are hardly involved at all.”
“As a rule, a lot of volunteers go to the PTPs, and they set up the various workshops and various types of art activities with the children. There are also volunteers who come to the PTPs on a permanent basis as a duty [to the administration], but at the same time they bring in some interesting activities that the children are truly interested in and enjoy. As a rule, the children welcome such volunteers, hug them and are very happy to spend time with them, because they are suited to the job in their souls.”
Access to Medical Services and Therapy
In at least some PTPs, all refugees, including children, underwent a medical examination when thy moved in. For example, it was officially reported that providers from the district hospital examined the large group of refugees from Mariupol and provided them with medical care over the course of several days immediately after their arrival at the PTP in Tikhvin – they operated mobile outpatient clinics, a mobile radiology station and specialist clinics; 38 people were hospitalized with trauma, coronavirus and pneumonia. As a rule, the infirmaries operating at PTPs only provide first aid.
“There is a practitioner onsite at the PTP in Kaluga Province. At first he was there for the whole workday, but now only for half the workday. If somebody gets sick, they simply go to the clinic or check into the hospital in the city. They can take them there, if it’s necessary. As a rule, they are 15-20 minutes’ drive from the PTP. An ambulance can come if necessary. I don’t know of any instances when the ambulance didn’t come.”
“Everywhere I’ve been – Rostov, Tula, Kursk Province – there was an infirmary operating at the PTPs. They have nurses who can provide first aid if something happens and give you some medicine. But there are very few medications there, only the most basic painkillers and something for temperatures, for poisoning. If it’s something serious, they will simply send the patient to a clinic or hospital.”
Our respondents note that, in the majority of cases, volunteers buy medicine with their own money and find resources for treating difficult medical conditions, including trauma and mutilations suffered in the combat zone. There have been many reports that people with disabilities are supposed to confirm this according to Russian regulations to obtain benefits and support, but that filing takes up a great deal of time, and in the meantime it is only possible to obtain medical care on a paid basis.
“Among PTP residents, including children, there are those who were disabled before the war started, and also those who were somehow mutilated directly during the time of hostilities. Those who were disabled in the war are still being filed and aren’t receiving any payments. Over a year has already gone by since many of them ended up on Russian territory, but the documents still aren’t filed. There are many of them. For example, we very recently treated an 18-year-old boy from Mariupol. A shell blew up next to him; his ear was blown off with everything inside it, and his knee was also seriously hurt. There isn’t anything for him to do. The authorities sent him to a clinic, I guess, but there they kicked him from one doctor to the next, and nobody gave him any help. So first, we took him to a hospital in Ufa, where he was examined. Then we transferred him to Moscow. There, they gave him an operation and did plastic surgery on his ear for free.”
One of the most serious problems is children’s social and psychological adaptation after ending up in a PTP. According to the interviewed volunteers, a psychologist’s office is often open onsite at PTPs. However, the specialists’ qualifications are subject to dispute, and in the majority of cases the refugees themselves refuse therapy, either because they don’t believe the specialists can help them or because they are ashamed of asking for help due to the conventional notion that psychologists work with the insane. For this reason, children are rarely seen by psychologists, since the majority of parents don’t see a need for it. Due to a lack of therapy, many children cannot deal with their status and cannot adapt to the new conditions of life in which they find themselves.
“The children arrived at the end of May 2022. We led them on an excursion to the school. Many of the children had seen a lot of horrors. For example, how their school had been the first thing destroyed, since it’s in the schools, especially the village ones that are the biggest buildings in town, where the military headquarters are deployed. After the experience they’d lived through, they were simply terrified to visit a school, since for them it’s a dangerous building, and various breakdowns were happening. Many of them show symptoms of PTSD: They sleep poorly and can’t control their aggression. They are constantly getting in fights – for them, it is the normal language of communication. When we create a camp for them, the majority of time we’re just pulling them apart and trying to talk to them, to provide therapy, since nobody is doing that besides us.”
“Aside from the usual medical care, the Tikhvin PTP offered everyone therapy, and a psychologist’s office was specially equipped. But practically nobody used his services, even though there were many people, including children who had been sitting in bomb shelters for weeks, who had serious PTSD. Judging from everything, the cause of this was the lack of a culture of using therapy and a lack of understanding of how important therapy is. Many people still perceive a psychologist as a doctor who works with psychos. So going to see him openly is considered somehow abnormal. We also noticed that the psychologists themselves did not indicate a particular desire to speak with people and get through to them the importance of their work and the necessity of therapy after what they had lived through. After that, we decided to organize a kind of extra, independent therapy, with regular specialists who were able to explain to people why they might need a psychologist. But that idea didn’t succeed. The PTP administration wouldn’t let us do that. At present, as I understand, therapy is no longer provided there, since there is no demand for it among the residents.”
“Psychologists go to PTP sites, at least a psychologist comes in Ufa, but I have a lot of questions for him, because he’s telling children who have anxiety and PTSD to just take some sedative. The ones who need serious therapy refuse it. We talk them into signing up for a checkup with a regular specialist so he can prescribe regular medicine that can really work and help relieve anxiety. We even find money for it ahead of time. But unfortunately, all of them refuse and just ask for some mild sedative for their children. The moms see that their children are doing poorly, that they’re shouting in the night or are afraid of certain sounds, but they aren’t doing anything for that.”
Protecting the rights of Ukrainian children in Russia is a very important but very complicated task. Of course, all children taken from Ukraine without the consent of their legal guardians (and these are not only the parents, but in many instances the Ukrainian government) must be returned home.
Unlawfully applying foreign citizenship and placing children with citizens of the aggressor state under permanent guardianship (or by adoption, if such instances are discovered) must be ceased, recognized as unlawful and undone (if it has already taken place). All children who have found themselves unaccompanied in Russia and Belarus should be helped to find their relatives in Ukraine, establish contact with them and have the opportunity to reunite with living family members. We must push for the right of children to keep their identity and defend them from the militarism and ideologized Russian instruction being thrust on them.
Under these general approaches, there should be comprehensive measures for cooperation between government agencies and representatives of civil society, volunteer groups and parents’ initiatives.
We must not allow international human rights structures to withdraw their attention from the issues of the violation of Ukrainian children’s rights, and we must push for experts on children’s rights and international law to conduct independent monitoring and assessment of the situation.
It is worth calling special attention to children who remain at points of temporary placement and various government camps.
Ukrainian children should not be subject to discrimination; they need help and support to overcome the trauma of war and the loss of homes and loved ones. If we do not work on the problem of trauma among both children and adults who spent many months in basements under shelling, left under automatic rifle fire and lost their whole previous lives, this will lead to the growth of domestic violence and a doubling of the children’s suffering. It is important to defend children from any manifestation of aggression and to create for them a safe environment and conditions for rehabilitation and growth.
We must arrange ongoing informational cooperation at the intergovernmental level on issues of searching for children who have gone missing during the war and provide Ukrainian child welfare agencies with access to data on all Ukrainian children in Russia and Belarus.
Children’s rights should be a priority in overcoming destructive war.