Dmytro Lubinets, Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights
Many Ukrainian children try to tell us that they are in Russia and want to return
30.12.2023 16:46

Since the start of the full-scale war, the Russian Federation has abducted thousands of Ukrainian citizens. They have become hostages of the Russians, who are doing everything to prevent Ukrainians from returning home. Among all these people, children are one of the most vulnerable categories.

After the deportation of Ukrainian children, Russians continue to commit illegal acts against them - changing their citizenship, transferring them to families there, "turning them around" at the border when they try to leave Russia.

Ukrinform spoke with Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets about Russia's crimes against Ukrainian children, as well as the problems with the return of our prisoners of war and civilians.


- How many appeals on violations of children's rights have been received by the Ombudsperson's Office this year? What topics did they concern? How many of these applications were related to violations that occurred due to the full-scale war?

- This year we have received almost 1600 appeals regarding violations of children's rights, and almost 4400 since the beginning of the full-scale armed aggression. There are about a thousand cases related to the armed aggression by the Russian Federation. But we realize that this figure does not show the scale of the entire tragedy, because in fact, many people do not come to us.

I believe that the rights of every Ukrainian child have been violated by the Russian Federation [by starting a full-scale war]. When a child cannot simply feel safe, and unfortunately, children cannot feel safe throughout the entire country, this is a violation of the basic right to life.

- How many organizations and individuals are involved in the process of returning deported Ukrainian children? How many of them are domestic? How do international partners help in this process?

- The issue of returning deported Ukrainian children is handled by a large team - the President, the Head of the Presidential Office, all executive authorities, a large number of public organizations, including our institution. Everyone is doing their job.

When society sees a Ukrainian child return, it is actually the result of a lot of work. In order to return even one child, we need to carry out many international activities - travel abroad, make public appearances, etc. This is a daily hard systematic work. And I always emphasize that it is the state of Ukraine that returns Ukrainian children.

As for international partners, the situation is much worse. Yes, as of now, we have Qatar's mediation in this matter, and good cooperation with UNICEF. But unfortunately, in my opinion, few international organizations are showing concrete results. Although they are involved in various initiatives. We have a lot of initiatives [to return children to Ukraine] and we want to show real results.

- How difficult is the process of verifying deported Ukrainian children and their places of stay? And who could help to establish this process?

- It is as complicated as possible. Either directly or through the mediation of some partners or international organizations, we are not provided with such information at all. That is, I have never received any information about any Ukrainian child from the Russian side, they never provide it to us.

- And Russia also did not hand over the list of Ukrainian children in Russia to the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba?

- We offered her to take the lists of Ukrainian children from the Russians. I have no information whether she took them or not. At least no one has ever given us any lists of Ukrainian children from the territory of the Russian Federation.


- Do you have any information about how many Ukrainian children have been illegally adopted in Russia, and how widespread this process is?

- According to my information, this process is on the largest scale in Russia. They try to place Ukrainian children in Russian families right away.

When the Russians realized how much work we - Ukraine, including our Office - are doing to document war crimes committed by the Russian Federation [and such adoption of a child is a war crime], they simply stopped legally recognizing it as an adoption. The Russians call it "temporary custody". Although in fact it is the same thing.

According to my information, at least 380 Ukrainian children have been placed under so-called "temporary care," although I call it adoption. There is also an officially established fact of adoption of a Ukrainian child in Russia - State Duma deputy Mironov officially adopted a Ukrainian girl and then changed her documents. Margarita turned into "Marina," and her surname was changed.

Although this is not even an adoption, because they even violated their own procedure - they simply rewrote the child's birth certificate and recognized that it was supposedly their child, that she had always been theirs.

And this is not an isolated case. It's just that we can't talk about many cases publicly now, at least not yet.

- Do you know how massively Russians prevent Ukrainian children from returning home, as was the case with Bohdan Yermokhin?

- In general, Bohdan's track became as well-known and public as possible because Lvova-Belova herself held a press conference about it, where she said that the Ukrainian special services were allegedly leading him, that they were allegedly forcing Bohdan to leave the territory of the Russian Federation.

But according to our information, Bohdan himself tried to leave the territory of Russia twice and return to Ukraine. And twice he was stopped by the Russians. That is, instead of at least hiding this fact, they did the opposite - they publicly showed: look, here is a Ukrainian child, we did not let him into Ukraine.

How many such cases are there? There are many. The case of Bohdan is not an isolated one. But the issue with children is that they are still children. And they can't just cross the border, even if they have documents - a birth certificate, a passport. According to any national law, they will not be allowed to cross the border if they are under 18. This is the problem.

But many children are trying to send us a signal on their own that they are on the territory of Russia, that they have been deported, that they want to return.

- In March of this year, you said that the Ukrainian authorities had information that Russia might start returning Ukrainian children on a systematic basis. Has anything changed since then?

- Children are coming back, you can see that. If earlier, in my opinion, this did not happen so systematically, now it is happening. Yes, these are not the numbers we dream of. The return of children should be on the scale of hundreds and thousands. As of now, we have not reached such numbers. And I don't know whether we will reach them or not, but we are working on it.

I said it before and I'm saying it now: after the arrest warrants were issued for Putin and Lvova-Belova over the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children, we have information that is now being confirmed that the Russians are at least ready to negotiate and return Ukrainian children. Yes, in my opinion, they are still delaying the process, making it slow. But the children are coming back.

- A recent report by Yale University stated that more than 2,400 Ukrainian children were taken to Belarus. What data does the Ombudsman's Office have on this?

- It's about the same. And we are recording a new systemic problem when Russians deport Ukrainian children through the territory of Belarus.

According to my information, they are constantly compiling new lists of children who are currently in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine, in particular in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who will be taken to Russia through the territory of Belarus. Probably, in this way, the Russians are trying to cover up the information that the children are on the territory of the Russian Federation as much as possible.

In my opinion, Belarus is an additional factor for them to hide information about deported Ukrainian children.

That is, establishing the fact of deportation and verifying the child is a painstaking job. We need to establish who took the children, where they came from, and how they brought them to the territory of the Russian Federation. And when this happens through the territory of Belarus, how can we find such information on its territory? It is very difficult.

- In your opinion, how many Ukrainian children can be in Belarus in total?

- If we are talking about how many of them are there right now, it would be thousands of Ukrainian children. But I think they are there temporarily. That is, it is an intermediate point in the logistics before transportation to the Russian Federation.

- Do you know how many children the Belarusian Red Cross is involved in the deportation of?

- I can't tell you the exact number. But we do have evidence that even publicly the Belarusian Red Cross Society supported the deportation of Ukrainian children and continues to do so.


- Human rights activists have stated that the consequence of teenagers receiving Russian passports in the temporarily occupied territories (TOT) is military registration. Do you have any data on how many teenagers in the TOT have received Russian passports and how many of them have been registered by the Russians?

- All children who are on the territory controlled by the Russian Federation have been registered for military service, absolutely all of them. When boys reach the age of 16, according to our data, they are automatically registered in the Russian military. Then it continues like that. That is, he [the teenager] is constantly being registered until the moment he is probably served with a summons.

According to our information, absolutely all children who were supposed to receive Russian passports have received them. There is no choice there.

- In May, you said that several dozen cases of Ukrainian children being removed from refugee families abroad had been recorded, and that work was underway to help these children and parents return to Ukraine. In which countries are these cases most often recorded? And how many families have already been returned to Ukraine?

- Some of them have been returned. I would not say that this is a large number. Many of them are currently in court in those countries. The worst situation we have with similar cases is in Italy and Germany.

We immediately respond to this information. I appeal to my fellow ombudsmen in these countries to intervene in such situations. We also inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because our diplomats have to work on these cases first.


- In your opinion, how realistic is the exchange of prisoners of war in the "all for all" format now? How difficult is it?

- As difficult as possible. The last exchange took place on August 7. In my opinion, the Russian Federation has now chosen a new tactic - not to return prisoners of war and civilians and to spread information among relatives of prisoners of war as much as possible, saying that Ukraine is to blame for the fact that exchanges are not taking place.

In my opinion, in this way they want to create additional social tension within our country and simply use the relatives of prisoners of war against the Ukrainian government.

As of now, I do not believe in the exchange of "all for all". Perhaps the situation will change. At least I can assure everyone that the team working in this area - me, the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War - are all working every day to ensure that exchange processes are unblocked first [in general]. We are trying to do this in different ways. And then, perhaps, we will again be able to theoretically conduct an exchange of "all for all".

- You said earlier that there is evidence that Ukrainian prisoners of war are being transferred through its territory with the participation of the Belarusian authorities. Does the institution you head have any evidence that our prisoners of war are currently being held there? If so, how many places of detention and people are we talking about?

- As of now, I have no information that Ukrainian prisoners of war are on the territory of Belarus. But the fact that they were temporarily held there, that they were moved through the territory of Belarus - we have this information and it is confirmed.


- With whom does the Ombudsperson's Office cooperate on the issue of victims of enforced disappearances, in particular, their identification?

- First of all, with the national authorities responsible for this. This is the Ministry of Internal Affairs as the official holder of the Register of Persons Disappeared under Special Circumstances, which started working this year. We also receive information from the National Information Bureau.

In fact, the same team of people who deal with prisoners of war deals with victims of enforced disappearances. Because the problems are similar, they are in the same places of detention in Russia or on the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine. We need to conduct any communications through the same intermediaries through whom we are trying to reach an agreement on both prisoners of war and children.

I am working on the issue of making the return of civilians a separate area of communication with Russia. I mean communication not directly, but through intermediaries. We are looking for a partner who can take on this responsibility, and not just raise this issue, but show in practice that we can return civilians home.

We had proposals and developments from Turkey. We really wanted to involve them. And I hoped that they would take at least part of the responsibility for the fate of political prisoners, those detained by the Russians in the temporarily occupied Crimea. These communications are not over, we are continuing them. And I would mention Turkey as just one example of the countries with which we are in constant negotiations.

- Andriy Yakovlev, an expert at the Media Initiative for Human Rights, said that where a war crime has been committed, the state can hold the persons in question longer than until the end of the armed conflict. He clarified that Russia is in fact strengthening its ability to hold citizens allegedly legally after the end of the armed conflict. Do you think Russia will use this to avoid returning Ukrainians?

- 100%. She will definitely use it and is using it now.

According to international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions, the Russians cannot detain civilians at all, it is expressly prohibited. But they do it anyway. That is, they are deliberately showing that they do not pay attention to such a concept as international humanitarian law at all. For them, it is just a piece of paper that does not pose any threat.

This is probably the main problem with international humanitarian law. There is no effective mechanism for punishment if someone does not comply with these norms. What is Russia's responsibility? None at all. Of course they are using it and will continue to use it. Our task is to find mechanisms to force them to do so.

For its part, Ukraine, in my opinion, fully complies with its international obligations. But the Russians do not. So what do we have to do? Right, to continue to de-occupy our territories in various ways and thus ensure that the rights of our civilians who are now in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine are not violated by the Russian Federation. At least, I don't see any other mechanism as of now.

- In the summer, you said that the International Criminal Court could bring charges against Russia regarding the victims of enforced disappearances. In your opinion, who among the Russian leadership, or perhaps ordinary Russian civil servants, could be charged with this crime?

- First of all, this is the person who made the decision to start the occupation [Russian President Vladimir Putin]. That is, we should start with the Russian leadership.

The decision to deport Ukrainian children, in my opinion, was made by their president. For this, he received the first arrest warrant from the ICC. Is it sufficient? With regard to the issue of Ukrainian children, probably yes.

But with regard to the issue of victims of enforced disappearances, a separate submission should be made, a separate criminal proceeding. As, by the way, with regard to the violation of the rights of prisoners of war. There should be a similar algorithm.

- Why do you think it is so difficult to release civilians from Russian captivity?

- The issue of returning civilians, in my opinion, is the most difficult issue in communications with the Russian side, which are conducted in different ways.

As for the children, you can see that somehow we have a process going on, that there is an international coalition, public events, an arrest warrant for Putin and Lvova-Belova. With regard to prisoners of war, there is international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, and a roughly clear exchange mechanism. That is, we understand how we will return them, and we are ready for it.

As for the return of civilians, we have nothing. The Russian side does not want to talk to us about them, either directly or through intermediaries. We are looking for mechanisms to return them.

Russia is massively detaining civilians on the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine, violating their rights. We do not see any effective mechanism to overcome this.

By the way, I see parallels between the situation with Ukrainian children and victims of enforced disappearances. According to our data, the Russians deported the first Ukrainian child in 2014. Have you seen the world's reaction? No, I haven't. The world woke up after the International Criminal Court issued these two arrest warrants. After that, we started to see some results, albeit small ones. At least there was a way to resolve this issue.

As for the victims of enforced disappearances, we need to go the same way. We have been saying for years that the Russians are detaining them. What's the reaction? Virtually none.

I really hope that when the ICC, by analogy, issues an arrest warrant [for the Russian leadership] on the basis of illegal detention of civilians in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine, the world will wake up, and then all countries will start saying that this is not right, that this is a violation, and will look for mechanisms to influence the Russian side.


- On November 9, the head of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, Serhiy Tomilenko, said that at least 25 journalists were being held captive by Russia. How difficult is the work on their release? Does Russia provide any information about them? Is there any progress in communication with the Russians regarding their return?

- There is no progress, no data is provided.

- Perhaps there is some new information about journalist Dmytro Khilyuk, in particular about his health? Does the Ombudsman's Office take into account the information published about him on the Internet, for example, by Reporters Without Borders?

- Unfortunately, nothing has changed with regard to Dmytro, although I have repeatedly discussed this separately during various communications with my counterpart. As for the other issue, we take into account any information we can find about Ukrainian citizens illegally detained by Russia.

- How many Ukrainians are there in total who were detained by the Russians in Crimea and Donbas before the start of the full-scale war? Does Russia provide us with information about them? Does the institution you head maintain contact with their families?

- According to our data, these are hundreds of Ukrainian citizens. Traditionally, we do not receive information from Russia [about them]. As for the families, we always meet with those who want to meet with us.

And these are political prisoners, but we also have military personnel who have been captured since 2014. As for the number, there are about 373 of them, this is a separate list.

- During the final press conference, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky said that the return of Crimeans captured by Russia is practically non-existent. Who could help Ukraine with the issue of returning Crimean political prisoners?

- Turkey. As of now, I see only one effective mediator who has shown that he can do this. Political prisoners, including Crimean Tatars, have been returned to us through Turkey's mediation. We hope that this trend will continue in the future.

Maria Honchar, Kyiv

Photo: Ruslan Kanyuka

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