Back Urgent action needed to reunite Ukrainian children transferred to Russia and Russian-occupied territories with their families

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Children evacuated from the then Russian-controlled city of Kherson, wait in a bus heading to Crimea, in the town of Oleshky, Kherson region, Ukraine October 23, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Children evacuated from the then Russian-controlled city of Kherson, wait in a bus heading to Crimea, in the town of Oleshky, Kherson region, Ukraine October 23, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

“Russia’s failure to return Ukrainian children separated from their families and legal guardians is a serious violation of their human rights. Concrete mechanisms and solutions must urgently be identified and used to reunite these children with their families,” said today the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, following a visit to Ukraine focused on the human rights situation of Ukrainian children transferred to the Russian Federation and to territories of Ukraine under Russian occupation.

As the Commissioner has already stated in her memorandum on the human rights consequences of the war in Ukraine, which followed an earlier visit in May 2022, Russia’s aggression has resulted in the violation of the human rights of countless Ukrainian children. Hundreds of children were killed or injured, and millions were deprived of their ability to enjoy basic rights, including healthcare and education. The war has also led to the internal and external displacement of millions of people, putting many children at an increased risk of being separated from parents or caregivers. Thousands of Ukrainian children, including entire orphanages and care institutions, were evacuated to other locations within Ukraine, as well as to other member states of the Council of Europe and beyond. The Commissioner has previously drawn attention to the plight of Ukrainian children victims of war, and stressed the need to strengthen the identification and registration of unaccompanied and separated children in Europe and to implement family tracing and reunification procedures for them.

Many other Ukrainian children affected by the war were taken to or ended up in the Russian Federation or in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. The particular circumstances of such cases differ considerably. One category are orphans and children in institutions who had been resident in the regions of Ukraine occupied by Russia and who were taken to Russia before last year’s aggression, since 2014. Others have been taken to Russia from care institutions located in the regions of Ukraine that have come under occupation or temporary control of Russian forces after 24 February 2022. According to many of the Commissioner’s interlocutors in Kyiv, the Russian authorities frequently maintain that the children are either orphans or without parental care, and routinely change their guardianship arrangements or place them in foster care. This often happens without the authorities making sufficient efforts towards establishing or contacting the children’s relatives or existing legal guardians back in Ukraine. However, while precise data on the identity and whereabouts of children and their relatives is not available in all cases, the Commissioner was informed by the Ukrainian authorities that the Ukrainian children who have been taken to Russia currently have legal guardians appointed in Ukraine.

Another category are unaccompanied children whose parents or carers were killed, injured, detained, or disappeared during the hostilities, for example as a result of the Russian shelling of Mariupol and surrounding areas. Some children have reportedly been separated from their families during the so-called “filtration” process or during transfer to the Russian Federation. Further, in areas that have come under the temporary control of Russian forces, some children have been sent to recreational camps in various parts of Russia or in territories of Ukraine occupied by Russia, such as Crimea. Many have not been returned to their parents at the end of the stipulated period of stay, as camp authorities reportedly refuse to hand them over unless their parents collect them in-person. It is reported that the children held in such camps are being subjected to indoctrination into a pro-Russian worldview and historical narrative demeaning Ukrainian identity, and that anti-Ukrainian sentiment is commonplace.

In what appears to be a deliberate exploitation of the children’s vulnerability, some Ukrainian children taken to Russia were given Russian citizenship. As has been reported, some of the children may have later been adopted. This practice appears to be supported by Russian public officials at all levels of authority. This is clearly exemplified, for instance, by the presidential decree passed in May 2022 to expedite the granting of Russian citizenship to children from Ukraine who are deemed orphans or left without parental care. It is also evident in the high-profile adoption of a Ukrainian child by the Russian Federation’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, which was announced live on television and widely shared in the social media in a manner which exposed the child’s identity to the public. The Commissioner recalls that States Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which the Russian Federation has ratified, undertake to respect the best interest of the child and children’s right to preserve their identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognised by law without unlawful interference. Changing children’s personal status, including their nationality, by an occupying force is further prohibited by Articles 49 and 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Commissioner underlines that children separated from their parents during a humanitarian emergency cannot be presumed to be orphans and are not available for adoption, which should never occur during or immediately after emergencies.

The reunification of Ukrainian children who have been taken to Russia and separated from their families or legal guardians back in Ukraine or in other countries is an extremely complex undertaking marred by different obstacles. The situation is rendered particularly difficult by the lack of a special mechanism for reuniting the children with their families and legal guardians. Further, international organisations and human rights monitoring mechanisms do not currently enjoy adequate access to these children in the Russian Federation due to the unwillingness and refusal of the Russian authorities to grant such access and to cooperate in facilitating their return. In this situation, the return of individual children is organised on a case-by-case basis and by multiple actors, including several Ukrainian state authorities, Ukrainian and Russian human rights defenders, volunteers, and other members of the civil society. This method often requires the children’s parents and guardians to embark on perilous and costly journeys through Russian or Russian-occupied territories – a risky endeavour that many of them are either not ready or ill-equipped to make.

It is very difficult to establish reliable overall figures on the number of Ukrainian children who have been taken to Russia, especially those of unaccompanied children or those in orphanages or care institutions. There are several initiatives to that end, including the tracing website “Children of War” established by the Ukrainian authorities, which also records reports of children who have died or gone missing. However, “the scarcity of reliable figures should not discourage initiatives aimed at finding solutions”, said the Commissioner.

The Commissioner considers that the failure to return Ukrainian children taken to Russia to their parents or legal guardians is a clear violation of those children’s human rights. In so far as it deprives family members of mutual enjoyment and disregards family unity, this practice is at variance with the children’s and their parents’ right to respect for their private and family life. Under the CRC, children shall not be separated from their parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine that this is necessary for the best interests of the child (Article 9 of the CRC). Children who are separated from their parents have the right to maintain personal relations and direct contact with their parents on a regular basis (Article 9 of the CRC). Applications by a child or a parent to enter or leave a State Party for the purpose of family reunification shall be dealt with in a positive, humane, and expeditious manner (Article 10 of the CRC). States have also the obligation to combat the illicit transfer and non-return of children abroad (Article 11 of the CRC). Finally, under Article 38 of the CRC, states undertake to uphold and to ensure respect for rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in armed conflicts which are relevant to the child, and to take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.

The Commissioner is deeply moved by the tragedy of many unaccompanied children located in Russia or on Russian-occupied territories, away from international public scrutiny and with limited access to assistance. “Unaccompanied Ukrainian children are among the most vulnerable and powerless victims of the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine. We must act urgently,” said the Commissioner, calling for resolute action by the international community. “The reunification of Ukrainian children with their families and legal guardians in Ukraine or in third countries cannot wait. Measures to facilitate family reunification should be taken as soon as possible. The passage of time will inevitably weaken those children’s links with their families and complicate their eventual reunification,” stressed the Commissioner.

As a first step, a mechanism for reuniting Ukrainian children with their families and legal guardians should be established. More clarity is also needed with regard to the entities and procedures through which parents, relatives, legal guardians, and children can seek assistance in family reunification. “This is a matter of the highest priority, and it must be addressed through joint efforts, including international organisations, and the use of all available expertise.” The relevant actors should be given unimpeded access to records and information about all Ukrainian children taken to Russia and Russian-occupied territories to enable their identification and search for relatives, in full compliance with personal data protection standards.

Further, the Commissioner calls on the authorities of all Council of Europe member states to make it a top priority to pursue and support efforts to locate, trace, and reunite all separated Ukrainian children with their families or legal guardians, based on a child-rights approach and in full respect for the principle of the best interest of the child. “Children are Ukraine’s hope and future. No effort must be spared, and every solution must be explored, to allow them to reunite with their close ones as soon as possible.”

The Commissioner also encourages the international community to support and cooperate with reliable organisations and networks of Ukrainian and Russian human rights defenders and civil societies who are involved in facilitating the reunification of unaccompanied Ukrainian children with their families in full consideration for the best interest of each child. Such support should include funding and legal, administrative, and practical assistance to children’s parents, relatives, and the organisations and individuals who help them.

Stress and anxiety caused by prolonged separation from families and caregivers can have devastating long-term negative effects on many Ukrainian children taken to Russia. This is especially true for the most vulnerable children, such as those with special needs and/or those placed in institutional settings. “All children who are returned from Russia should receive child-rights based support for their reintegration, including legal, medical and psychological support,” the Commissioner recommended. The international community should also help Ukraine pursue its efforts towards the de-institutionalisation of childcare and the creation, as soon as the situation allows, of a nurturing environment in which children are raised in families.

Lastly, the Commissioner notes the importance of ensuring justice for all victims of violations of the rights of the child. Commending the efforts taken to that end by the Ukrainian investigative authorities, she stressed that “all those who knowingly engage in violations of children’s rights must be held accountable”.

During her visit to Kyiv, the Commissioner met with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, Iryna Vereshchuk; the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emine Dzhapparova; the Adviser – Commissioner to the President of Ukraine for Children’s Rights and Rehabilitation, Daria Herasymchuk; the Deputy Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Denys Chistikov; Ukraine’s Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets; Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Andriy Kostin; and representatives of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis. She also met with representatives of civil society and international organisations.

During the visit, the Commissioner also discussed the human rights situation of Crimean Tatars in view of the preparation of a report on this subject to be published at a later date.

Kyiv/Strasbourg 06/03/2023
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