Russia Deports Ukrainian Children: Can We Bring Them Home?

August 23, 2023
Russia continues committing the war crime of deportation, abducting thousands of Ukrainian children.
Photo credit: Save Ukraine Foundation

Meanwhile, a big number of young Ukrainians remain under the influence of Russian propaganda in the occupied territories.

UkraineWorld spoke with Mykola Kuleba, the founder and the head of the Save Ukraine Foundation, about what is happening to Ukrainian children in deportation and occupation and how to bring them home.

The number and location of deported Ukrainian children

Only official Russian sources can be used to estimate the number of deported Ukrainian children to discuss their current situation. For example, Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian Commissioner for Children's Rights, whose arrest warrant was issued by the International Criminal Court, recently stated that over 700,000 Ukrainian children had been registered in Russia following the full-scale invasion.

According to several Ukrainian official sources, this data is exaggerated. But, for the time being, we don't know whether the true figure is lower or higher. Lvova-Belova does not specify what type of children these are, how many were abducted, or how many were deported with their parents. She previously stated that such information would not be shared with Ukrainian authorities.

It is essential to focus not only on deported children, but also on those who remain in occupied territories.

Ukrainian children in Crimea, Donbas, and newly occupied territories are subjected to Russian propaganda in the same way as children on Russian territory.

Attempts are being made to Russify them. This starts with their forced acceptance of Russian citizenship.

Russia enforces a forced passportization policy. The Russian military demands people in occupied territories to accept the offered Russian passports and send their children to Russian schools.

Without Russian citizenship, Ukrainians on occupied territory are unable to send their children to school. If they refuse, parents face being deprived of their parental rights.

That is how Russia's Russification and assimilation of Ukrainians works.

The situation of Ukrainian children prior to the full-scale invasion also requires attention. After 2014, a large number of children remained in the occupied territories. The number remains unknown in regard to how many of them were deported to Russian territory, were adopted by Russian citizens, or placed in Russian orphanages.

Even worse is to think about how many of them are fighting in the Russian army against Ukraine after being brainwashed, given that the majority of them are already adults.

What can be done to get Ukrainian children back?

There are no simple ways to return Ukrainian children. The first thing we can do is to prevent more children from being abducted from occupied territories.

To accomplish this, it is necessary to inform the local population in all possible ways that sending children to a camp or any other institution can result in the child's abduction, orphan status, Russian citizenship, and adoption by a Russian family. We observed many situations similar to this.

Many children have been assimilated and it is an even bigger struggle to return them. Many of them are already convinced that Ukraine (as a state) does not exist at all.

Russian propaganda indoctrinated them to believe that Ukraine had already been or was about to be captured, so there was no reason to return.

Russians use various techniques to incentivize Ukrainian children to obtain Russian citizenship. For example, they promise to provide these children with free housing when they reach the legal age. They do not, however, tell them where this accommodation will be located.

Trying not to lose contact with deported Ukrainians is critical for us. We should also find ways to communicate with Ukrainians in Russia, even if they have Russian citizenship.

Another issue is the Ukrainian state system's readiness to accept and integrate returned citizens into Ukrainian society.

I spoke with a Ukrainian citizen, a native Ukrainian who lived in the so-called DPR and needed a local passport. He took custody of children whose mother had been murdered. He was able to flee to Germany. However, in order to legalise his presence there, he must first legalise his status in Ukraine. He's now pestering Ukrainian institutions for it, but he can't get it.

We must demonstrate our need for people who want to return to Ukraine and our eagerness to get them back. It is necessary to amend the legislation and establish a service system so that people do not encounter difficulties upon their return.

Russians are convincing Ukrainians who are under occupation or are being deported that Ukraine is dangerous and that no one is waiting for them there.

And we must construct our narrative, accepting our people and assisting them in adapting back into Ukrainian society is crucial.

Mykola Kuleba, the founder and the head of the Save Ukraine Foundation