Ukrainian parents have shared their heartbreak at not knowing where their children are or if they will ever see them again after Russian forces kidnapped thousands of youngsters and transported them to ‘re-education camps’ in Russia – in a policy likened to abductions carried out by terror group ISIS.
A study by Yale University last month found more than 6,000 children aged between four months and 17 years have been taken to 43 camps across Russia, including in Moscow-annexed Crimea and Siberia, for ‘pro-Russia patriotic and military-related education’. It is thought the true number is far higher.
Russia has tried to cast the relocation of the children as saving orphans or bringing them to camps for medical care – but Ukrainians say children are either being abducted outright or their parents are pressured or tricked into giving them up.
But International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan has this week likened the large-scale kidnappings to those carried out by terror groups such as ISIS, who took Yazidi girls from their homes.
Mr Khan, who has visited Ukraine three times, told The Sunday Times he has ‘never seen anything like this’.
Seven-and-a-half million children are thought to have been impacted by the war in Ukraine
Russia has tried to cast the relocation of the children as saving orphans or bringing them to camps for medical care – but Ukrainians say children are either being abducted outright or their parents are pressured or tricked into giving them up (Pictured: Ukrainian children in Russian-controlled Donetsk)
‘Isis snatched Yazidi girls for sex slaves and boys to train as fighters, and Pol Pot forced urban families into the countryside but this is different,’ he said.
Mr Khan is due to speak about the issue in Geneva on Thursday.
Speaking to the paper, parents of missing children described becoming suspicious when children came home describing so-called summer camps which would see them leave for several weeks with less than one day’s notice.
Some of these camps were in Russian-occupied territory, others in the Russian-annexed region of Crimea.
The few times parents have managed to contact their children, they were initially told of fun activities – but also that everything was in Russian and that they were made to sing the Russian national anthem every morning.
Several parents described being informed that their children’s return home would be delayed by a few days, then a few weeks, then more than a month.
Their children would be moved to different camps, and eventually would become uncontactable.
It has even been reported some Ukrainian parents were offered money to travel to Russia or its annexed areas, where they could be reunited with their children if they agreed to live there.
Just 300 children are believed to have made it back to Ukraine, out of tens of thousands of potential victims.
On February 23, Ukrainians left hundreds of teddy bears outside the European Commission to try and raise awareness of their children’s plight.
Russia has held at least 6,000 children from Ukraine in camps aimed at re-education in what could constitute a war crime, a US study has said. Pictured, a woman and child in the Ukrainian city of Bucha
Ukrainian refugees install thousands of children’s teddy bears and toys at Schuman Roundabout in front of the European Commission to highlight the abduction of thousands of Ukrainian children
Ukraine’s government say they have confirmed that more than 16,000 children have been deported to Russia (file image)
Nathaniel Raymond, a Yale researcher at the Humanitarian Research Lab – funded by the US State Department – said that Russia was in ‘clear violation’ of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians during war.
The activity ‘in some cases may constitute a war crime and a crime against humanity’, he told reporters.
The report called for a neutral body to be granted access to the camps and for Russia immediately to stop adoptions of Ukrainian children.
Ukraine’s government say more than 16,000 children have been deported to Russia where some have been sexually exploited.
The study said that Putin aides have been closely involved in the operation, including Maria Lvova-Belova, the presidential commissioner for children’s rights.
It quoted her as saying that 350 children have been adopted by Russian families and that more than 1,000 were awaiting adoption.
She herself has reportedly boasted about adopting a child from Mariupol since the start of the invasion.
The US report, which relied on satellite imagery and public accounts, said that at least 6,000 children have been sent to camps but that the number is ‘likely significantly higher’.
Last month’s report said that Russian authorities have sought to provide a pro-Moscow viewpoint to children through school curricula as well as through field trips to patriotic sites and talks from veterans.
Some children have also been given firearms training, although Mr Raymond said there was no evidence they were being sent to fight.
It has been a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, with President Vladimir Putin denying the historical legitimacy of the neighbouring country and in September formally declaring four regions to be part of Russia.
But Ukraine’s commissioner for children’s rights Daria Herasymchuk says it is likely to be far more.
‘Today the Russians say they have 738,000 Ukrainian kids they evacuated — but it’s not evacuation, it’s abduction and brain-washing and it’s an act of genocide,’ she told The Sunday Times.
‘We don’t believe it’s as many as that — we have so far documented 16,221 — but I think it’s a few hundred thousand.’
More than 460 children have been killed and almost 1,000 wounded since the war began, with seven-and-a-half million affected.
Save the Children estimates that the average child in Ukraine spent more than 900 hours underground over the past year — about 40 days. Some 1500 schools have been destroyed or damaged.
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