The Russians are taking children out of Ukraine, committing genocide. The Ukrainian Commissioner for Childrenʼs Rights Daria Gerasymchuk tells how they are returned home, and how to adopt or shelter a child during the war

Oksana Kovalenko, Maria Zhartovska
Tetyana Lohvynenko
The Russians are taking children out of Ukraine, committing genocide. The Ukrainian Commissioner for Childrenʼs Rights Daria Gerasymchuk tells how they are returned home, and how to adopt or shelter a child during the war

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Daria Gerasymchuk became an adviser — the official representative of the President of Ukraine on childrenʼs rights and child rehabilitation on June 15, 2021. After the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation, her work increased. The occupiers began to take parents and children, orphans from orphanages to Russia and are now trying to grant them Russian citizenship and adopt them. In March, the Cabinet of Ministers established the Coordination Headquarters for the Protection of Childrenʼs Rights under Martial Law, and Gerasymchuk became its co-chair. Now she not only tries to start the process of adopting children, but also participates in the return of Ukrainian children deported by Russia, takes care of the problems of those who have lost their parents. In an interview with Babel, Gerasymchuk tells why one shouldnʼt choose a child, as if in a store, how Ukraine returns illegally taken children and how many of them could be stolen by Russia.

Kyiv region was attacked from the territory of Belarus, and, according to our information, the Russians were taking people to Belarus. Is it known how many children were taken there, do they remain there now and what happens to them?

No, we canʼt say exactly how many children were deported to Belarus. It [Belarus] is completely silent about this, and the Russian authorities only report about the transfer or, as they call it, "evacuation" to the territory of the Russian Federation. Everyone perfectly understands that deportation to Belarus, the Russian Federation or the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine is not evacuation, but forced deportation and relocation. If we talk about how children are taken to Russia, this information is available on the Children of War portal. The latest analysis showed that they are being moved to the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk region, Luhansk region, Crimea or deported to the Russian Federation.

There is a well-known story about the Yatsyuk family, where there were two children. In March, the family was leaving through the village of Motyzhyn, Kyiv region, and the Russians fired at their car. The parents died, the occupiers gave a nine-year-old Valeria to random people in a neighboring village. The eldest, fifteen-year-old Arina, was wounded, and the Russian military took her away in a tank: they said that they would take her to a hospital in Belarus. No one saw the girl again. How can you determine where it is?

It is necessary to send an application to the National Information Bureau (NIB). Next, NIB employees, together with the Prosecutor Generalʼs Office, the National Police, international organizations and everyone we connect them with, conducts a search. This can be done directly by contacting the NIB or via the Children of War portal.

Anna and Denys Yatsyuk.
Arina Yatsyuk (left) and Valeria Yatsyuk (right).

Anna and Denys Yatsyuk. Arina Yatsyuk (left) and Valeria Yatsyuk (right).


The Children of War portal has statistics on displaced children. There are different numbers: in open sources there are 557 thousand children, and according to the National Information Bureau there are more than seven thousand of them. Why such a big difference?

Five hundred and fifty-seven thousand is a number from open sources, which is voiced by the Russian authorities and mass media. Unfortunately, itʼs rapidly increasing, but not supported by data. The Russians donʼt provide data at the request of the Ukrainian side or the international community. Ukraine can neither confirm nor deny this information. But we note it so that people understand that such a number exists, it is communicated and seen in the mass media.

The number of more than seven thousand children is based on a verified list of displaced children. It is compiled according to statements received by the National Information Bureau. This list is then worked on by various departments — for example, the National Social Service Service of Ukraine. It is checked for the presence of orphans and children deprived of parental care.

This list is supplemented by the information we have: about the representatives, relatives of the children. We collect data on each child from various databases in Ukraine. The formed list then becomes the basis for the search. The National Information Bureau refers it to the International Committee of the Red Cross, other international organizations that have a mandate for search operations. The Ukrainian side has specific data and facts about these children.

Is it clear from the statistics how many orphans, children deprived of parental care, or children who are permanently in boarding schools were taken away by the Russians?

The information is available in the NIB. They can tell exactly how many children fall into these categories. Russia has been able to deport and relocate children since 2014 from the temporarily occupied territories — the so-called "L/DPR", occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions. There were institutions for the care for children. Unfortunately, there are no specific lists of which children were there when the full-scale invasion began. Ukraine has not had access there since 2014. We canʼt say exactly who they could take out of those territories and how many.

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, only one institution of children care remained — a sanatorium in Mariupol, where children were staying. They were forcibly taken away, actually stolen. There were 17 children there, 15 have already been returned, the process of returning of two more is underway.

In the territory controlled by Ukraine, we clearly knew where which institutions were located, who had time to evacuate, and who remained in the temporarily occupied territory. The Russian army is blocking all possible agreements regarding humanitarian corridors for the moving of children.


Regarding the children who were returned to Ukraine. The website says the total number is 53. You said 15. Who are these children and how they were returned?

I canʼt disclose the details of how these children were returned. They also were deported in different ways. Some were together with their parents, but then separated. Someone was deported with other adults because their parents were killed. There are children whose parents were injured while leaving the occupied territory, and the child was simply taken away and deported somewhere. These are completely different children, of different ages.

As for these 53 cases, the number is constantly increasing as we continue the work on liberating and returning the children. The first two examples of this are Kira and Ilya. Their parents were killed in Mariupol, and they themselves were forcibly deported when they tried to leave the city with other adults to the territory controlled by Ukraine. They were deported separately from adults and placed in health care facilities. It was from there that they were returned.

There is a case of the eleven-year-old boy Sasha. He and his mother were injured, they were deported together, but then they were separated in the filtration camp. Mom was detained, and now she is on the list of missing persons. The injured Sasha was transferred to a hospital in Donetsk region. He was there for more than three months. We managed to find out where he was, three weeks later — Sasha was able to ask for a phone number from other patients, call his grandmother and tell her where he went, that his mother was filtered and they were separated. It took about three months to get Sasha back.

There is a story of a father who tried to leave Mariupol with his three children. He was detained in a filtration camp, and the children were deported to the Russian Federation. After some time, it was possible to free dad and reunite him with the children.

On May 30, Vladimir Putin signed a decree on a simplified procedure for granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainian children. The Russian Federation created a register of our children, despite the fact that there is no register of Russian orphans. It is reported that the Russians have established guardianship over about two thousand Ukrainian children. Are such actions not genocide?

These are signs of the genocide of the Ukrainian people, Ukrainian children. We ask people to report via the Children of War portal about known facts of forced change of citizenship of children and forced illegal adoption. We call on the international community to recognize this [genocide] and we want to collect as many facts as possible to document everything.

In order not to violate international humanitarian law, when children are in danger and need to be removed from the place they are in, Russia must communicate with the Ukrainian authorities. Were there such attempts?

During the six months of the war, the entire international community can clearly see how Ukraine is evacuating the civilian population. How we try to negotiate to get people out, but operations are constantly being disrupted and the agreed evacuation corridors are being shelled. Ukraine is making efforts to create a safe zone and take its children home. But the Russian authorities, of course, are not interested in this. They are interested in continuing, maintaining their legend of liberators and saviors. In general, they should not take the children away, but give the Ukrainian side the opportunity to take their civilians to the controlled territory, to take them out of the combat zone.


Regarding adoption. By law, does Russia also has to coordinate such actions with the Ukrainian authorities?

They donʼt just have to coordinate. Russia is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Protection of Childrenʼs Rights. Recognizing the adoption procedure or carrying it out, they must necessarily obtain permission and approval from the relevant authority in the childʼs country of origin. In Ukraine, it is the National Social Service. No documents were sent to it. Therefore, the Russian Federation violates the UN Convention on the Protection of Childrenʼs Rights, which it has ratified. Such adoption is illegal and contrary to international law.

Regarding adoption within Ukraine. In one of your interviews, you said that the number of children orphaned during the war is still unknown. Is this still the case?

We cannot say that the information is complete. We do not have access to temporarily occupied territories. We cannot say the exact number of dead, injured, deported children. And with regard to children who have lost their parents, as well. As of August 1, it is known about 3,172 children who were left without parental care. Of them, 541 lost it due to martial law. It is either death, death of parents, or lack of contact if they are missing. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, 106 children have received official status as an orphan or a child deprived of parental care.

In April, you launched the initiative of a temporary shelter for children The child is not alone. What are its first results?

Chat The child is not alone functions in Telegram. During the full-scale invasion, we received more than 23,000 applications from Ukrainian families who are ready to temporarily host a child. The mechanics are as follows — the family sends an application to the chat, in 96 hours it receives detailed information about this form of temporary accommodation. This is the first filter for sifting out families who do not clearly understand what it is. After reading the form, they need to fill out an extended application with information about the family. After the first filter, more than eight thousand families filled out the application out of 23 thousand. Next, they were offered to watch three short educational webinars, to undergo a short training on how to communicate with the child, which may be very specific. Everyone should understand very well that itʼs unlikely to be super cheerful and satisfied with the fact that it got into a completely new family. This is stressful for any child. We wanted families to be prepared. Just as families who adopt children become foster or adoptive parents, foster families. Now more than two thousand families have already been trained, the procedure for temporary accommodation is already underway.

Children who need temporary housing donʼt necessarily have lost their parents. For example, the child lived with his mother and grandmother. The adults are injured and receiving treatment, and the child is temporarily placed with the family of people he or she knows. Or a child was found under the rubble, what happened to the relatives is unclear. While they are being searched for, the child is also in the other family. We have such a case. In Kharkiv, where the boy was found, he was placed in a family that had a close, friendly relationship with him. This family visited him in the hospital for some time. When the boy left the hospital, he went to them for temporary accommodation. After some time, the mother was found in the temporarily occupied territory — she could not leave and cannot get out from there now. So the boy continues to live in this family, and his mother is constantly in contact with them until she finds an opportunity to get out. So there are different cases.

Daria Gerasymchuk.


Has the adoption process in Ukraine actually stopped at the moment?

No, now it can be said that it is already renewed. During a war in any country, the adoption procedure is frozen, because it cannot be done step by step and nothing can be simplified there. For some time it was "on hold", but we decided to try to restore it anyway. For several months, the Ministry of Social Policy, together with a group of experts, members of the coordinating staff for the protection of childrenʼs rights, worked together on the changes that need to be made to the regulations of the adoption procedure. In August, this resolution was adopted, and now we can say that the adoption process in Ukraine is being resumed. Yes, there will be many individual cases and cases that need to be adjusted manually. Itʼs impossible to think everything through now. Many children are moving or have already moved to other regions. On June 1, we presented the digitization of the adoption procedure, it will be fully ready by the end of October.

Will foreigners be able to adopt?

No. Now there are many difficulties with the arrival of foreigners to Ukraine, establishing contact with children. If a child is evacuated abroad, it is also a certain challenge who will deal with the adoption there. So we will now try only the procedure inside the country and the state.

You mentioned earlier that the number of applications for adoption has increased. Sometimes famous people say that they are thinking about adopting a child after the war. Is there really a trend?

Yes, there is a certain surge in cases. Ukrainians are a very empathetic nation. We all perfectly understand that now children need the support of adults and families more than anyone else, and they will definitely be better off in families. When we conduct training for families who volunteered to temporarily shelter children, we tell them about other forms of care, and about adoption, and about the fact that they could become candidates for foster parents, create a family-type orphanage or adoptive family. This is how we use the resource of these people. I can say that a certain part of parents who came for temporary placement after studies are already collecting documents to become candidates for adoptive parents. There are parents who collect documents because they want to create a foster family or a family-type orphanage.

But there is a nuance here. Adults should always remember: it is not they who have the right to adopt a child, but the child has the right to be adopted. We all want to be little big heroes. At least for the child we are taking. Often now, adult media and public figures communicate that they would like to adopt a child who lost their parents during the war. But in fact, not only children who have lost their parents need families. These are not always small children from birth or up to a year or three. These are children with disabilities, different, very different children. And first of all, you need to remember that every child deserves a family. Unfortunately, adults often go overboard. Why do we have a long queue of adopters? Because people expect and want a child according to their parameters. You know, like in the store: "I want a two-year-old blond boy with blue eyes, and he must look like me." You see? And thatʼs not how everything happens here. It is necessary for adult Ukrainians to change their opinion. After all, adoption is a very responsible step, and it is not heroic, but normal.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Do we understand correctly that after the war the strategy will be to move away from homes, boarding schools and develop more family-based types of care so that children are in families?

This was the strategy before the full-scale invasion. Last year, when I was appointed to this position, I constantly communicated that every child in Ukraine should grow up in a family. Now, when we see destroyed orphanages, there are problems with evacuation, we should not go back to the old practice. It is time to implement family forms of education as much as possible.

Translated from English by Anton Semyzhenko.

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