Russia deports Ukrainian children to orphanage in occupied Crimea condemned as a ‘concentration camp’
An independent Russian website has tracked down fourteen very small children abducted from Kherson while it was under Russian occupation and passed to a children’s home in occupied Crimea which was described in 2020 as “a children’s concentration camp”. The Verstka report has coincided with new condemnation from a top UN official of Russia’s violation of the “fundamental principles of child protection” during wartime by abducting Ukrainian children, putting them up for adoption in Russia and foisting Russian passports on them.
Verstka Media reported on 25 January that the Russians had taken at least 14 ‘orphans’ under the age of five from Kherson to the ‘Yelochka’ children’s home in Russian-occupied Crimea. Their investigation is based solely on ‘letters to Father Christmas’ written by Yelochka staff and similar sources, with it therefore difficult to even be certain that all of the children were genuinely orphans.
There has thus far been nothing to suggest that Russia is making any effort to find the parents or guardians of children whom they have forcibly deported from occupied parts of Ukraine. Its deportation of any children and attempt to turn them into ‘Russians’ are, in any case, undoubted violations of Articles 49 and 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians. They are also viewed by human rights organizations as acts of genocide. In defining genocide, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide specifically names “forcibly transferring children of the group” among “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (Article IIIe].
It is worth pointing out that Russia is not actually denying that it is taking children from parts of Ukraine, and is, indeed, boasting of the number of children purportedly ‘evacuated’. In September 2022, Maria Lvova-Belova, a Putin protégé and the so-called children’s ombudsperson openly admitted that Ukrainian children from Mariupol had been taken to Moscow region. While claiming that the children were orphans, she also made it clear that these children had emphatic pro-Ukrainian, anti-Putin views which, it was clear, she saw the need to eradicate.
In the case of the 14 small children illegally taken to Yelochka children’s home, there are also other concerns. The list may well not be complete, but Verstka explains that they managed to establish the whereabouts of 14 children through photos published on a website entitled 'Adoption in Moscow region'. The region’s education ministry had a supposed charity campaign for ‘orphans’ from occupied Ukrainian territory and posted the photos of 700 children together with their presents, and the letters they had ‘written to Father Christmas’ giving details about themselves. The details were, almost certainly, heavily controlled by those organizing this propaganda effort. The Verstka correspondents noticed that 14 letters were all signed by the same person, and all mentioned that the children had come from Kherson. Only two mentioned Yelochko, however all 14 were photographed against the same background from Yelochka, a children’s home which apparently has children with different disabilities, as well as those with HIV.
Verstka points out that Yelochka’s ‘work program’ for 2021-25 includes instilling so-called “patriotism and civic consciousness”, as well as “awareness of themselves as citizens of a multinational Russia”.
This, it should be stressed, is not just an appalling violation of international law with respect to the 14 small children from Kherson. Russia has been systematically brainwashing children in occupied Crimea and Donbas since 2014, and is now foisting the same lies on any other part of Ukraine that falls under its control.
Considering the heavily censored media that Russia imposed on Crimea after its invasion and annexation, it is telling how big the scandal over Yelochka was in September 2020. The Russian state-controlled RIA Novosti posted a photo of an emaciated child on 4 September, under the headline: “As weightless as a doll” Why a Crimean orphanage became a ‘concentration camp’. Verstka explains that the scandal arose after several families who took in a child from Yelochka reported that the children had been in a terrifying state of emaciation. One woman reported behaviour that clearly suggested that the child had also been physically abused. Another spoke of an atmosphere of appalling indifference, with the children turned into physical and psychological invalids. A two-year-old lad was found to weigh only six kilograms. A former member of staff effectively confirmed the stories, yet the reports led only to a ‘check’, carried out by the occupation ‘health ministry’, ‘Investigative committee’ and ‘prosecutor’ which, typically, found no violations. One of the people who had gone public about the conditions refused to give up and did manage to get a criminal investigation initiated. There is nothing, however, to suggest that there has been any progress on this investigaton, and the chief doctor at Yelochka, Aleksandr Vasiukov remains in his post.
On 27 January, Filippo Grandi, Chief of the UNHCR [the UN’s refugee agency] spoke with the international media after discussions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The latter called on UNHCR to develop mechanisms to ensure the return of forcibly deported children, however Grandi acknowledged that his agency cannot even estimate the number of children either ‘given’ passports or put up for adoption, as Russia is not providing proper access. He stressed that giving Ukrainian children Russian “nationality or having them adopted goes against the fundamental principles of child protection in situations of war. This is something that is happening in Russia and must not happen.”
Both Reuters and the BBC either gave extensive coverage to Moscow’s version or used terms like deportation in inverted commas. They would be better quoting international law which is quite unequivocal in such situations, or UN officials who have also seen no need to present ‘two sides of the argument’ when one comes from an aggressor state flouting international law.
In June 2022, shortly after Russian leader Vladimir Putin signed a decree simplifying Russian procedure for adopting so-called Ukrainian ‘orphans’, Asfhan Khan, UNICEF regional director for Europe, “reiterated, including to the Russian Federation, that adoption should never occur during or immediately after emergencies, <> Such children cannot be assumed to be orphans, and "any decision to move any child must be grounded in their best interests and any movement must be voluntary. Parents need to provide informed consent."
In September 2022, Ilze Brands Kehris, the assistant UN secretary-general for human rights, told the Security Council that “there have been credible allegations of forced transfers of unaccompanied children to Russian occupied territory, or to the Russian Federation itself.”