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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with children at the opening of the Center for the Protection of Children's Rights in Kiev. The centre is part of the Bring Kids Back UA effort to return children illegally taken by Russia. Alamy Stock Photo

Ukraine's stolen children 'They are forcibly adopted by Russians who are strangers to them'

Minister of State Seán Fleming outlines the importance of an international push to recover all the Ukrainian children kidnapped by Russia.

THEY MADE HIM say “Glory to Russia” not “Glory to Ukraine.” This is what 9-year-old Ilya remembers, mere hours after he saw his mother killed by Russian shrapnel – another victim of Russia’s unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine. Ilya lived in fear of not complying with Russian officials.

Recently, at the United Nations in New York to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I heard first-hand from three Ukrainian children who had experienced the horror of being forcibly separated from their parents in the course of Russia’s brutal war. I was struck by their experiences, including witnessing the deaths of their parents, family and friends.

These children are three of the estimated 20,000 Ukrainian children who were forcibly taken from Ukraine and transferred to Russia and Belarus since the beginning of the war. They are the ‘stolen children’.

Children taken prisoner

After bombs and destruction rained down on the cities, towns and villages of Ukraine, homes, apartment blocks and large buildings were destroyed, killing thousands of people. Children who have survived have found themselves taken captive as prisoners of Russia and transported across the border.

Some children were forcibly taken from their parents and, still to this day, do not know whether their parents are dead or alive.

Russia’s large-scale deportation of Ukrainian children from their homes is part of planned efforts to erase Ukrainian identity. These children face Russian “re-education,” or indoctrination, an attack on their nationality and coercion to accept Russian citizenship.

Many of these ‘stolen children’ are forcibly adopted by Russian people who are strangers to them. They are completely deprived of their true identity.

These children have already been put through the horrors of war in a manner that is difficult for us to understand, only to then face forced deportation to a foreign country, forced adoption by strangers and an attack on their core identity as Ukrainians.

As part of our support to the people of Ukraine, Ireland recently joined the International Coalition for the Return of Ukrainian Children. This important group was put together to ensure that Ukrainian children return to their families and communities. It is vital that these children are returned to their loved ones.

Ireland participated in the Summit on Peace in Ukraine in recent days, which included a focus on the return of Ukrainian children. The children who have been deported to Russia have families that are desperately searching for them before their names are changed and they become untraceable.

Bringing them home

So far, nearly 400 children have been successfully rescued and reunited with their families. In many cases, of these 400 children, their parents have died and older grandparents have had to track down papers and take dangerous journeys through Russian-controlled Ukrainian land and through Russia itself to find and reunite with the stolen children and family.

In other cases, extended family members such as brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles often had to make these dangerous journeys and do whatever they could to find their relatives.

Very sadly, in some cases, the stolen children are lost forever, no family members remain to search for them and their forced adoption by Russian people leaves no trace of their Ukrainian identity.

Since reuniting some of these children with their families, there have been lasting traumas from the separation. This includes depression and self-harm. These children may never recover from the war that unfolded, the deaths of their parents and family and their forced transportation to Russia.

There are significant challenges in securing the children’s return. One of which is Russian attempts to obstruct efforts to find, contact and reunite these children with their families.

While the rest of the world watches in horror, we are witnessing a campaign by Russian and Belarusian state media to spread disinformation. In Belarus, the Lukashenko regime televised a ‘celebration’ for a newly arrived group of deported Ukrainian children as the centrepiece of the New Year’s Eve coverage.

International efforts

That is why, in addition to supporting initiatives to secure the return of children, Ireland is supporting international efforts to establish the facts and ensure accountability.

At the UN Human Rights Council, Ireland supported the establishment of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law by Russia in this war. The Commission has already provided an interim report establishing that Russia is engaged in unlawful deportations.

The Irish Government has been unequivocal that the deportation and forcible transfer of children may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Working with other EU countries has ensured that people involved in the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children are now subject to EU restrictive measures. Recent listings have also targeted individuals involved in the Russian-led “re-education” of Ukrainian children.

As we are now in the third year of this brutal invasion, Ireland will continue to work with our international partners on this issue, with a view to ensuring that each and every child can be accounted for and reunited with their families.

Sean Fleming, TD is Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

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