Last April, after spending weeks in the basements of besieged Mariupol, Evgeny Mezhevoy was separated from his children during a Russian check at the exit of the city. A former Ukrainian soldier, he is sent to prison. Matvey, 13, Sviatoslava, 9, and Alexandra, 7, are then boarded a plane for Moscow, with the promise of attending a summer camp.
When he was released from prison a month later, Evgeny traveled to Russia to find his children, placed in the Polyana camp near Moscow, and bring them back to Ukraine. Matvey, Sviatoslava and Alexandra are among the 125 unaccompanied minors returned to their country, a minority.
More than 13,000 unaccompanied minors
On the extent of the phenomenon, it is difficult to establish an exact figure. Last December, Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned between 50,000 and 200,000 Ukrainian children deported to Russia, in an interview with LCI. Although most are displaced with their families, more than 13,000 children identified as isolated have been forcibly exiled since the start of the Russian invasion, according to Ukrainian authorities.
On the dedicated site appear the photos of the wanted children, as well as their names, ages, regions of origin and places of disappearance. In May 2022, the Russian authorities admitted to having “saved” more than 240,000 children spread over its territory.
The methods used by Russia vary. The children are picked up from orphanages, hospitals or social centers in the annexed regions. Some are orphans, others have been placed in institutions by their parents, and still others have been separated from their families during the war.
Upon their arrival in Russia, these minors are sent to “temporary accommodation centers”, like the children of Evgeny Mezhevoy. “They were not badly treated,” says the 39-year-old man. They were simply imposed hours of getting up, going to bed and meals. The children are then offered for adoption to Russian families, in exchange for payment from the state.
Pierre Raiman, the’one of the founders of the association “For Ukraine, for their freedom and ours”, specifies that it is extremely difficult for the families to recover the children: “The men take a lot of risks by going to Russian territory . Most often, it is the mothers or grandmothers who have to make the trip,” explains this doctoral student in contemporary history at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University.
According to an Amnesty International report published in November 2022, Russian deportations also rely on the “filtration” procedures put in place during humanitarian evacuations to its territory. Some parents are placed in detention and separated from their children, who find themselves alone, with the status of an isolated minor.
The NGO points to “a deliberate Russian policy and the systematic nature of certain deportations or forced transfers, which, in the context of an attack against the Ukrainian civilian population, in particular in places like Mariupol, seem to amount to situations of crimes against humanity”.
To facilitate the assimilation of Ukrainian children, Vladimir Putin signed, on May 30, 2022, a decree establishing a simplified naturalization procedure for orphans and children deprived of parental care. The authorities can thus change the date and place of birth of the children, their surname and first name.
“This strategy, launched during the Russian conquest of the Donbass in 2014, aims to Russify Ukrainian youth”, explains Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE). This practice is in no way hidden by the Kremlin, which poses as the savior of these forgotten minors, fueling Russian propaganda.
The essential mission of Maria Lvova-Belova
This process of forced assimilation is embodied by the figure of Maria Lvova-Belova, Vladimir Putin’s commissioner for children’s rights. This patriotic muse exposes on television and on social networks the children she “saves” in the Donbass, presenting the Russian families who welcome them as benefactors.
Four days after the invasion of Ukraine, the one who has already adopted five children (including a Ukrainian) relayed on Instagram an open letter from the Russian parental community: “Each child evacuated to our country is safe, surrounded by care, supplied according to his needs. (…) We must accept every child of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as our own. Special attention should be given to orphans. »
The French association “For Ukraine, for their freedom and ours” filed a file with the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, December 21, 2022, requesting the opening of an investigation for a genocide “to which the whole of the Russian chain of command participates, ”says Pierre Raiman. Evidence of the deportation of children by Russia should also “legitimize the creation of the ad hoc international criminal tribunal that Ukraine wants”, believes Emmanuel Dupuy.
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