Main Image Credit Victims of war: children prepare to board a bus from Mykolaiv to Odesa in April 2022. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy
The UN has recently concluded that the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and Russian-controlled areas is a war crime. The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for the arrest of President Vladimir Putin, alongside Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. Although the Russian authorities have been accused of several war crimes ranging from rape to wilful killing, the international media’s focus on the crime of forced transfer of children demonstrates how powerful children are as a symbol of the spoils of war.
In the initial months of Russia’s invasion, the media took particular concern with the way children could be used on both sides of the war. Both Russia and Ukraine had a history of recruiting child soldiers, and in January–February 2022 evidence of Ukrainian children being taught to use weapons surfaced alongside a rhetoric that everybody had a responsibility to resist and defend Ukraine’s independence. This was consolidated by a tweet from Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence and former Commander of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces (TDF) Yuriy Halushkin on the outbreak of the invasion. It stated that the TDF had implemented a more simplified system for signing up, asking potential recruits to bring their identification number and passport, and that there would be no age restrictions.
Since this announcement, however, there has been very little information available relating to children playing an active part in civilian defence. Despite Russia claiming Ukrainian children were being sent to the frontline, evidencing this with pictures of youthful-looking recruits, this has largely been debunked. Teenagers of legal age are, however, participating, which perhaps draws blurred lines in terms of what looks legal and ethical. Yet thus far, there is no evidence of either side participating in the childhood violation that involves recruiting underage soldiers to armed forces or groups.
It was only around April 2022 that the narrative around the involvement of children in the war started to change. Instead of focusing on the role of Ukrainian children as potential recruits, the media began condemning Russia’s treatment of children. There is evidence of Russia committing four – although likely five – of the six violations of children set out by the UN Security Council, including killing/maiming children, attacking schools and hospitals, sexual violence, abduction, and denial of humanitarian aid in contested areas.
A recent report by the Human Rights Council, like the international media, focused especially on the violation of abduction. The Ukrainian government has launched a ‘children of war’ portal, a website described as a tool for rescuing and liberating children from forced displacement. The website records and updates the figures of those deported, reunited, dead or injured, and is consolidated and updated by law enforcement agencies. As of the end of March, the official number of children deported stands at around 16,200, although the webpage – along with the Human Rights Council’s report – emphasises that these figures cannot be verified due to active hostilities and occupations.
One thing Russia, Ukraine and the international community agree on is that children require safeguarding away from the occupied territories, which remain warzones. Ukraine itself has stepped away from its initial claims that all can bear arms, recently implementing a mechanism that forces children to evacuate from combat zones, even against their parents’ wishes. Russia also claims its resettlement efforts are motivated by humanitarian reasons, with children effectively being saved from dangerous regions. This narrative has only been exacerbated by Russia with its use of ‘saved’ children in pro-war rallies, and claims that Ukrainian children fleeing westward have themselves become victims of exploitation. Ukraine has denounced Russia for conducting illegal adoptions and forcibly holding children in specialised institutions. External reports have found that, at these camps – of which there are at least 43 – children are subjected to political re-education and, in some instances, military training. There is motivation here to use children to the advantage of Russian ideologies, specifically manipulating the domestic population of Ukraine to become more Russian and moulding them into genuine Russian citizens. There are major issues around consent, with families divided unwillingly and no updates given on children’s locations. Moscow’s true vision is to bring about domestic filtration and to bring territories under control, which involves population replacement.
By prioritising the funding of child protection tracing and reunification activities to support families who are able to claim their children, a precedent is set that emphasises the importance of safeguarding children in combat zones and ensures that they are not forgotten in the wider context of the war
So, this begs the question: how will this resolve and how will Ukrainians get their children back? The first challenge is to identify an accurate number of children being taken out of occupied territories, and pressure should be applied by external parties on Russia to comply with international humanitarian law, which stipulates that the occupying power must inform the state about the movement of its citizens. This will be no easy feat, with so many children already displaced and conversations between civil authorities few and far between. The second challenge is identifying and implementing a legal mechanism that ensures children can be reunited with their families in Ukraine. There are mechanisms that work for exchanges of persons – be they prisoners or bodies – but what would Russia ask in return for the exchange of children?
As a matter of urgency, humanitarian organisations have called for a consistent technical-level working dialogue to be established, ensuring adequate identification, registration measures, and alternative care arrangements in line with the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There have been some successful conversations between legal representatives of children and Russian guardianship authorities where children have been returned, but establishing a deeper working relationship between civil society organisations and technical bureaucracies could provide relief to children and spare them from being objects in political negotiations.
As humanitarian organisations demand a full and thorough investigation of current violations and call for judicial justice and accountability, the UK government must remember its commitment in military operations that protecting children embroiled in war is a moral, legal and strategic imperative. By prioritising the funding of child protection tracing and reunification activities to support families who are able to claim their children, a precedent is set that emphasises the importance of safeguarding children in combat zones and ensures that they are not forgotten in the wider context of the war.
The author would like to thank James Denselow and Narmina Strishenets (Save the Children) for sharing their knowledge about current humanitarian operations.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Emma Butcher
Senior Project Officer