As early as February last year, the Kremlin began a campaign to ‘evacuate’ Ukrainian children from the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, and after the start of the full-scale invasion, the deportation campaign was extended to other territories under the control of the Russian army. As of February 21, 2023 the Ukrainian portal ‘Children of War’ has identified 16,221 deported children. At the same time, as Re: Russia outlined previously, a number of experts have estimated that this number could in reality be anywhere from 300,000 to 715,000 children.
Experts from the Yale HRL Conflict Observatory have determined that Russia has implemented a network of state institutions used to house Ukrainian children from the occupied territories. Its coordination is carried out by federal officials; the programme is headed by Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’sChildren's Rights Ombudsman, who receives direct instructions from Putin himself. Putin also personally oversees the implementation of this programme and has repeatedly raised this topic in the speeches he has made over the course of the past year. In January 2023, he implemented additional measures intended to identify any children living in the occupied territories without parental care, and in his New Year's speech, he thanked Russian citizens for their assistance in the adoption and adaptation of ‘children from the new regions of the Russian Federation.’
At the federal level, the Minister of Education, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the head of the Presidential Administration and his First Deputy are also responsible for this programme. Regional and local officials oversee the management and furnishing of the institutions where the children are housed and ‘re-educated’.
The governors of the five regions where the majority of these institutions are located are also actively involved in the programme, personally supervising its implementation. In Moscow, the programme is headed by Ksenia Mishonova, Commissioner for Children's Rights in the Moscow Region. According to Yale HRL, both civil society and representatives from private businesses are also active participants in this process, but are mostly assigned to supporting roles.
Yale HRL experts were able to verify the existence of 43 of these institutions, but their number is likely to be much higher. A significant number (41) are summer camps. 12 are located in the Krasnodar Territory, 7 in Crimea and 10 near major cities, including Moscow, Kazan and Yekaterinburg. A further two camps are located in Siberia, and one in the Far East. Many of the regions bordering Ukraine, as well as the republics of the North Caucasus, also have one such institution. In addition to summer camps, Yale HRL experts have managed to establish the use of one psychiatric hospital and one family centre where Ukrainian children are being held.
Russian officials use four pretexts to deport children: 1) visits to health camps; 2) evacuation from combat zones 3) provision of medical care 4) adoption or search for a foster family if the child is in an orphanage or has been left without a guardian. However, in addition to these purported humanitarian goals, the programme also includes measures meant to ‘re-educate’ Ukrainian children and immerse them in Russia’s social and cultural agenda. Yale HRL found that such activities are being carried out in 32 of the identified institutions, including trips to cultural and patriotic rallies, familiarisation with the Russian education system, the study of history according to Russian educational standards, and attendance at events with veterans of the Great Patriotic War. Regional universities have also been involved in the organisation of events to acquaint Ukrainian children with the Russian higher education system with the hope that they will enter a Russian university sometime in the future. Military training courses have been organised for Ukrainian children at camps located in Crimea and Chechnya. In an institution near Grozny, boys at risk or with a criminal record are mandated to attend a ‘young fighter course,’ and in Crimea, a ‘School of Future Commanders’ has been opened, where children are taught to operate military equipment, dig trenches and handle firearms.
A large number of these children have ended up in Russia with the consent of their parents. Before taking the child to such a camp, the Russian authorities require parents to sign away their power of attorney and give their consent, as well as to provide copies of the children’s passports and birth certificates. In October, the BBC’s Russian Service reported that every parent from Balakliya had voluntarily agreed to send their children to these camps, and as such there were not enough places for all those wishing to go. There are a number of reasons why these parents would want to send their children on a ‘holiday’ to Russia. Some may want to remove their child from the war zone, others may want the children to spend time in an educational and recreational sanatorium, or to make sure their children receive regular meals. All vouchers to such ‘sanatoriums’ are provided free of charge (the expenses are paid for by Russia’s regional authorities). Representatives and teachers from the occupying authorities are responsible for disseminating information about the camps. As a result, it is primarily Ukrainian children from low-income families who end up in Russia.
It should be noted that, after the liberation of Kherson and Kharkiv region by the Ukrainian army, there were problems returning Ukrainian children home to territories that had returned to Kyiv’s control. Russia refused to return them to Ukraine under the pretext of threats to their safety. Four camps in Crimea and the Krasnodar Territory suspended the process of sending children home, despite the fact that their parents only consented to their children’s stay at the camp for a limited period.