FT investigation finds Ukrainian children on Russian adoption sites

Started by LifeOfPi, Jun 18, 2024, 04:34 PM

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FT investigation finds Ukrainian children on Russian adoption sites
Four missing Ukrainian children identified and located in Russia, including one given false identity

Alison Killing in London and Christopher Miller in KyivJune 12 2024

Ukrainian children who were abducted and taken to Russia in the early months of the Kremlin's 2022 invasion have been put up for adoption by authorities, in one case under a false Russian identity, a Financial Times investigation has found.  Using image recognition tools and public records, as well as interviews with Ukrainian officials and the children's relatives, the FT identified and located four Ukrainian children on the Russian government-linked adoption website usynovite.ru.  The findings add to the mounting body of evidence that the International Criminal Court, Ukrainian government officials and legal experts say point to alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia.  One of the children is shown with a new Russian name and age that differs from their Ukrainian government-issued documents. Another child is shown using a Russian version of their Ukrainian name. There is no mention of the Ukrainian background of any of the children.  The children were abducted from state care homes and separated from their guardians and relatives in towns across the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine that fell under the control of Russia's invading army in 2022. They range in age from eight to 15-years-old.  The children traced by the FT and whose identities were confirmed with their families by the Ukrainian authorities have ended up in the Tula region near Moscow and in the Orenburg region close to the Kazakh border. One of the children was taken to occupied Crimea.  Seventeen additional matches identified by the FT on the adoption website were confirmed as Ukrainian children in a recent New York Times investigation, all of them from a children's home in Kherson.  The ICC has issued arrest warrants for Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova, saying they bear criminal responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of the children.  The Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment about the FT's findings. It has objected to the warrants, denied abducting children and tried to justify its actions by claiming it was done for their protection despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary.  A defiant Putin has signed decrees making it possible to fast-track Russian citizenship for Ukrainian children taken to Russia. Ukrainian authorities estimate nearly 20,000 children have been forcibly taken from occupied territories to Russia since its full-scale invasion began in February 2022; many thousands are still missing.  The parents and relatives of the four children located by the FT declined to speak about their situation in detail, citing concerns that Moscow would thwart their return home.  But other families whose children have been forcibly taken to Russia and returned to Ukraine recounted harrowing experiences during their time in the country. Moscow has allowed some children to return to Ukraine if their relatives or guardians come to Russia to collect them.  They described the children being coerced to watch and recite Kremlin propaganda; being held against their will; not being allowed to contact relatives; and being forced to take Russian identities. Many described verbal and physical abuse by Russian children and some caregivers.  "I was heartbroken," said Svitlana Popova, mother of 15-year-old Alina Kovaleva, who was abducted by a group of Russian soldiers in the occupied Kherson region.

Her daughter's captors "had a new birth certificate forged to say that Alina was born in Russia", she said in Kyiv after returning with her daughter. "And adoption papers. [They] were going to make my daughter their own."

Wayne Jordash, president of Global Rights Compliance, an international humanitarian law firm, said forcibly transferring or deporting children are war crimes.  "However, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population as Russia's attack on Ukraine undoubtedly is, they are also crimes against humanity," he said. "Changing [children's] identity and putting them up for adoption only confirms the necessary criminal intent."

The FT confirmed the children's identities with the help of the Ukrainian Child Rights Protection Centre (CRPC), a state body. The centre is awaiting further confirmation on two more children located by the FT who they strongly believe are Ukrainian.  The children's guardians and Ukraine's authorities had previously been unaware of the children's whereabouts.  The FT identified the kidnapped children by comparing photographs from an official database of missing Ukrainian children with public profiles of children up for adoption in Russia using an image recognition tool.  Reporters reviewed potential matches manually to select those likely to be a true match. The false names and ages the children had been given meant it would have been challenging to find them in other ways.  High probability matches were shared with the CRPC, which contacted the children's relatives and guardians to confirm each missing Ukrainian child.  Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament commissioner for human rights whose office oversees the CRPC and helped the FT with the identifications, called Russia's removal of Ukrainian children "premeditated".  Ukrainian officials shared with the FT Russian government documents that show the Kremlin had devised plans ahead of its invasion to forcibly deport Ukrainian children to Russia as part of a so-called "filtration" process.  "They had a well-planned genocide policy towards us," said Daria Herasymchuk, an adviser and commissioner of the president of Ukraine for children's rights. "They committed a crime, they kidnapped children in large quantities."

It is a struggle for Ukraine's government, the country's charities and the children's relatives and guardians to return the children. It often takes many months to track them down and several weeks or more to plan how to reach them.  The journey is roughly 4,000 miles round-trip, winding from Ukraine through the EU and then into Russia, where relatives and guardians face hours-long interrogations by the FSB, and then back.  As of June 11, Ukraine has managed to return at least 389 children from Russia, according to the president's office.  The office of Ukraine's human rights commissioner and the CRPC are attempting to confirm the identities of dozens more Ukrainian children taken to Russia who were flagged to them by the FT. The CRPC is working with a relative of one of the children identified and located by the FT to return them home to Ukraine.