In March, the International Criminal Court made a historic ruling: It issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian official overseeing the forced deportations of Ukrainian children to Russia.
The statement by ICC says that Putin is "allegedly responsible" for the unlawful deportation and transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.
The forced deportations of Ukrainian children to Russia have become one of the darkest and most discussed consequences of Moscow's all-out invasion of Ukraine.
Over 19,000 children have been de facto abducted from the occupied territories and sent to Russia since last February, according to a Ukrainian national database. Only 361 children have been brought back to Ukraine as of April 21.
Here's what we know about the forced deportations of Ukrainian children, where they are held in Russia, and how some are returning home.
How the deportation of children started
Russia had been kidnapping Ukrainian children long before the full-scale invasion: The "unlawful transfer of Ukrainian minors to Russia" began in 2014, according to recent analysis by the European Resilience Initiative Center.
The study says that "one of the largest programs of children relocation" was launched by the late Russian Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights member Elizaveta Glinka, widely known in Russia as "Doctor Liza."
It says that Glinka arranged the "first transfer" of 13 Ukrainian children from occupied Donetsk to Russia in December 2014 and requested Putin to "amend the country's legislation to allow relocations of Ukrainian children from Donbas to Russia on the pretext of providing medical assistance."
Russian state-controlled media outlet TASS claimed in 2017 that Glinka transferred 500 kids from Donbas in 2.5 years. According to the study, Glinka "effectively established a state-sponsored system of Ukrainian children's transfers to Russia."
"This system is nowadays being used by Russia's current Presidential Commissioner for Children's rights Maria Lvova-Belova…"
The Yale School of Public Health report, which the Conflict Observatory published on Feb. 14, says Russia started to "systematically" transport Ukrainian children from occupied territories days before the full-scale invasion in February 2022.
The report says the first transportations of children that were recorded in early February 2022 "included a group of 500 purported orphans" forcibly taken from Donetsk Oblast by Russia. Some of those children were adopted by families in Russia, "like other groups of orphans that would later be brought to Russia after the full-scale invasion," the report reads.
Olha Yerokhina, the spokesperson of Ukrainian NGO Save Ukraine, which helps rescue Ukrainian children from Russian captivity, told the Kyiv Independent that Russia began mass deportations of children from occupied settlements of Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts "under the slogan of rehabilitation and evacuation," shortly after the start of the invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.
The study also says that "additional groups of children would depart Ukraine for camps in Russia under the auspices of free recreational trips" by early March.
Less than a month into Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry reported 2,389 children illegally transported from occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts into Russia.
How many children have been deported
As of April 21, 14 months after the start of the invasion, Ukraine has recorded a total of 19,393 children unlawfully deported to Russia.
"Among these children are orphans, children who have parents, as well as children who have legal guardians or children whose parents died during hostilities," Yerokhina says.
Russia, on the other hand, claims that around 744,000 Ukrainian children have been transferred from Ukraine.
There's a big difference in the numbers since "Russia doesn't provide Ukraine with lists of so-called 'evacuated' children and families, as it should have done according to international law," says Yerokhina.
Daria Kasianova, the national program development director at "SOS Children's Villages" charity, which cooperates with the Ministry for Reintegration of Occupied Territories to return deported children, says the National Information Bureau collects the data on deported children from several sources, including the police, social services, and relatives' reports.
These children get identified and added to the nationwide database of deported children, which now includes 19,000 children. The actual number, however, might be higher.
"When we return children to Ukraine, they tell us about other kids that are kept in Russia, who are not in Ukraine's database," Kasianova told the Kyiv Independent.
According to Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, 4,396 Ukrainian orphans are now illegally kept in the occupied territories or were forcibly taken to Russia.
Yale School of Public Health has collected information about at least 6,000 Ukrainian children "aged four months to 17 years" who have been held in Russian-controlled camps and other facilities. The study, however, also assumes the actual number might be higher.
How Russians do it
Russian troops follow "five scenarios" to abduct and deport Ukrainian children, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported, citing Daria Herasymchuk, Ukrainian presidential advisor for children's rights.
According to Herasymchuk, they could either kill the parents or take the child directly from the family, guided by the made-up "laws" of Russian-installed authorities. Children could also be separated from their parents in the so-called filtration camps in Russia.
Another option is when children are ordered to go to "recreational camps" for vacations or medical treatment or kidnapped directly from institutions and orphanages in Ukraine's occupied settlements, the media reports.
Yerokhina says they recorded a mass deportation of Ukrainian children from Kherson and Kherson Oblast in autumn.
According to her, "the whole school classes of children were taken to occupied Crimea together with their teachers" under the false claims of evacuation "so that those children allegedly could continue their studies in safety." Yerokhina adds that the children were not returned to their parents "within the agreed time frame."
"Therefore, instead of two or three weeks, children were separated from their parents for six months or longer," she says.`
What happens to these children in Russia
In Russia, deported Ukrainian children are placed in hotels, summer camps, recreation centers, and shelters, where the conditions are often poor, according to the report by a coalition of Ukrainian NGOs that documents Russia's war crimes.
A study by the Yale School of Public Health shows that Moscow has established a whole "network of re-education and adoption facilities" in Russia and occupied Crimea, with 43 camps where Ukrainian children have been held since Feb. 24, 2022, already identified.
"The majority are recreational camps where children are taken for ostensible vacations, while others are facilities used to house children put up for foster care or adoption in Russia," the report reads.
It also says that the camps aim to "integrate" children from occupied territories "into Russian life and enforce a version of Russia's history, culture, and society that serves the political interests of Russia's government."
There, children are told that "Ukraine does not need them, that their parents abandoned them, and nobody will come for them," says Yerokhina.
"Russians separate children from their parents and take advantage of their vulnerable condition to put psychological pressure (on them)," she says.
According to the report, the "widespread re-education" of Ukraine's children has occurred in 32 of the identified camps.
"The systematic pro-Russia education of Ukraine's children takes many forms, including school curriculum, field trips to cultural or patriotic sites throughout the country, lectures from Russia's veterans and historians, and military activities," the report says.
"The meaning of such 're-education' is clear — children who have been in Russia and among Russian propagandists for a long time are more easily influenced by them," Yerokhina says, adding that they aim at erasing their Ukrainian identity.
Putin's easing of the process for Ukrainian orphans and children without parental care to receive Russian citizenship in late May last year has also been seen as "an effort to expedite the process for adopting Ukraine's children into families in Russia," according to the report.
However, it is yet unknown how many children obtained Russian citizenship and how many were adopted.
According to Russian independent media outlet Meduza, local authorities of Russian Krasnodar claimed that over 1,000 children from occupied Mariupol were adopted into Russian families in remote cities such as Tyumen, Irkutsk, Kemerovo, and Altai Krai in August.
In the same month, Lvova-Belova, the Russian official overseeing the deportations, also claimed she had adopted a teenager from Mariupol. She later told Putin she knows what it means "to be a mother of a child from Donbas."
According to Yerokhina, the Save Ukraine initiative has returned children from the occupied Crimea and Russian cities of Anapa, Yeisk, Gelendzhik, Voronezh, as well as Belgorod and Rostov oblasts.
According to Herasymchuk, after returning to Ukraine from Russia, children complained of beatings and other punishments for refusing to sing the Russian anthem and for mentioning that they were Ukrainians. She said that kids were not allowed to go for walks as punishment and were forced to copy texts in Russian.
Also, Russia often uses these children as political props at rallies. Speaking to journalists upon their return to Ukraine, children describe poor treatment towards them.
"The attitude towards us has changed significantly in a month or two. Everyone started hating us because we are Ukrainians because we came from Kherson," the 15-year-old Ukrainian teenager Anastasia told RFE/RL upon her release from the occupied Crimea.
Who is in charge of forced deportation of Ukrainian children
According to the ICC, there are "reasonable grounds to believe" that Putin is directly responsible for overseeing the deportations and that he failed to exercise control over the Russian military personnel and civilians who implemented the crime throughout occupied Ukrainian territory since the start of the full-scale invasion.
Putin can now be arrested in one of the 123 countries that are members of the ICC.
Yale School of Public Health has established that Putin "personally appointed many of the figures involved in this program and publicly supports their efforts."
The report calls Lvova-Belova the "apparent leader" of the operation at the "federal level."
On Feb. 16, Putin even praised Lvova-Belova for her work overseeing the deportation of Ukrainian children, portraying it as a "humanitarian effort" to "protect Russian citizens."
However, the report also says that "all levels of Russia's government are involved" in the deportations of Ukrainian children. According to it, "in the cases of both individuals deemed orphans by Russia and children residing in state institutions, a Russia-appointed institutional authority or a higher level occupation authority directs the transfer of Ukraine's children to Russia-occupied Crimea or Russia."
"Many of these transfers are coordinated by federal officials and conducted in concert with Russia's regional leaders and proxy authorities," the report reads.
The Yale researchers say they have identified "several dozens" of federal, regional, and local figures "directly engaged in operating and politically justifying" the deportation program.
And at least 12 of them were not targeted by the U.S. or other international sanctions as of February.
How is Ukraine returning these children
Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion, Save Ukraine has rescued 95 Ukrainian children.
During one of its latest missions, the charity brought home 24 kids from Kherson Oblast who Russia had illegally deported.
Yerokhina says that often, mothers of deported children reach out to her NGO, Save Ukraine, to help rescue their kids from captivity. She adds that they never disclose any details of rescue missions beforehand for safety reasons.
Kasianova says that getting to these children in Russia and rescuing them is difficult.
"There were situations when we were in touch with a child and were on the way to rescue them. But when we arrived — the child was no longer there," she says.
As of April 17, Ukraine has only returned a total of 361 children, according to official reports.
Experts say that the country would need further support from its allies and international organizations to bring back the rest of them.
Yerokhina says the UN General Assembly should adopt a resolution "on the need for the immediate repatriation of Ukrainian children." She thinks that the Council of Europe should also adopt a resolution demanding the identification and repatriation of these children.
On April 10, Vereshchuk announced that the Ukrainian government is creating an international coalition to return Ukrainian orphans forcibly relocated by Russia.
According to Vereshchuk, the coalition will need an intermediary, and that "can be anyone," including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
"In this case, the help of the world community is critical to us," Vereshchuk told the parliamentary TV channel Rada. "I hope that such a platform will start operating soon."
President Volodymyr Zelensky called the arrest warrant issued by the ICC a "turning point" in Russia's war against Ukraine. He said that after this legal step, "it becomes undeniable that the end of this aggression for Russia will be the full range of its responsibility."
"Responsibility for every strike on Ukraine, for every destroyed life, for every deported Ukrainian child," Zelensky said.
"The evil state will be held accountable for every act of terror against Ukrainians," he added.
Note from the author:
Hi! Daria Shulzhenko here. I wrote this piece for you. Since the first day of Russia's all-out war, I have been working almost non-stop to tell the stories of those affected by Russia’s brutal aggression. By telling all those painful stories, we are helping to keep the world informed about the reality of Russia’s war against Ukraine. By becoming the Kyiv Independent's patron, you can help us continue telling the world the truth about this war.