Hundreds of Ukrainian children are being transferred to Russia from occupied territories in East Ukraine. The Kremlin says they’re saving them, Kyiv claims genocide.
An extensive investigation by the EBU Investigative Journalism Network has examined dozens of videos from official Russian outlets and interviewed Ukrainian authorities, families and international NGOs. The results are chilling.
Since the start of the war, hundreds of children from occupied areas of Ukraine have been forcibly taken to Russia for placement in families or state institutions. Or they have yet to return from summer camps or essential medical treatments. Many have been given Russian passports in naturalization ceremonies. Some have disappeared entirely.
The Ukrainian government has set up a website – Children of War – to find the missing children. “This is nothing but the genocide of the Ukrainian people though our children,” says Daria Herasymchuk, Commissioner for Children’s Rights and Rehabilitation for Ukraine. “They kidnap them, they change their citizenship, give them up for adoption under guardianship, commit sexual violence and other crimes.”
According to Ukrainian officials, approximately 14,000 Ukrainian children have been removed to Russia. The Russians call it evacuation, saying that the removal of children into the comparative safety of Russia saves them from the daily dangers of living in a war zone.
Before the war there were around 100,000 children in these institutions for reasons including being orphaned, lack of a fit parent or poverty – vulnerable children prone to being moved unaccompanied. Now many of these care homes lie empty. In some cases the children were removed by Ukrainian officials to prepare for an invasion but the investigative network has found evidence that also points to raids by Russian authorities.
Russia has modified its legal framework to be able to receive the influx of children. In May 2022, Putin established a legal framework to fast-track and simplify the process for granting Russian citizenship and issuing passports to Ukrainian children without parental care– a framework which makes it much harder for their surviving relatives to get them back. As soon as July, Russian passports were being handed out to children, actions that have been denounced by the UNHCR.
Ukrainian children have since been shown in social media videos and on state TV as they have arrived in Russian towns. Maria Lvova-Belova, Putin’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, is quoted as saying at a naturalization ceremony in July when the new red Russian passports were being handed out, “You have to see how they have changed in just a couple of months, joyful, bright, smiling…Now that the children have become Russian citizens, temporary guardianship can become permanent.”
Belén López Garrido, Project Manager, Investigative Journalism Network, said, “This investigation bringing together journalists from several EBU Members has taken more than three months of painstaking analysis of official documentation, videos and exclusive interviews. Combining centralized resources with on-the-ground reporting, we were pleased to be able to bring this important story to the attention of audiences across Europe and beyond."
Pilar Requena del Rio is an investigative journalist at RTVE and also chairs the Investigative Journalism Network. She comments, “It has been a thorough and systematic work that denounces and exposes a very serious crime targeting the most unprotected and vulnerable victims, the children, mostly from Ukrainian state children's institutions, and some with disabilities. For weeks we have been looking for proof and testimonies and step-by -step, we have unravelled the evidence.
“It has also been amazing to be part of a group that shows it’s possible to engage in a constant collaboration between reporters from various European public broadcasters with the same objectives."
A key part of the investigation was the verification and clearance of dozens of pieces of social media evidence which was led by the Eurovision Social Newswire team. Led by Derek Bowler, the team was also instrumental in some of the key research and all of the online tools used to illustrate, prove and publish the story.
As part of the investigation, France Télévisions followed the story to summer camps by the Black Sea, unearthing evidence of Ukrainian children voluntarily sent by their parents to camps as a respite from the bombs. It was meant to be temporary - but some children did not come back on the expected return date. On many occasions, those children that have been released, thanks to mediation by Ukrainian and international NGOs, are only returned if their family can pick them up in person - a dangerous and expensive journey across several borders to enter Russian territory.
Liz Corbin is the EBU’s Deputy Director Media and Head of News, “This is a genuine pan-European investigation that could only have been undertaken by the public service media community. Trusted, evidence-based reporting, using a network of professional journalists who can collaborate and share vital leads through our strong news networks. We’ve also been able to pool resources to ensure every witness testimony has been verified and properly sourced."
The Investigative Journalism Network comprises over 100 reporters from across the EBU Membership. The steering committee includes the following public broadcasters: BBC (UK), DR (Denmark), FT (France), NRK (Norway), RTBF (Belgium), RTE (Ireland), RTVE (Spain), SR (Sweden), VRT (Belgium), YLE (Finland, and ZDF (Germany).
Reporters from EBU, FT, RSI, RTBF, RTVE, UA:PBC (Ukraine) and YLE all participated in this collaborative investigation by attending meetings coordinated by the EBU and producing the different elements of the story across several countries, recording interviews in Ukraine and sharing their intelligence to produce the story.