The Russian government is operating an expansive network of dozens of camps where it has held thousands of Ukrainian children since the start of the war against Ukraine last year, according to a new report released Tuesday.
The report contains disturbing new details about the extent of Moscow’s efforts to relocate, re-educate, and sometimes militarily train or forcibly adopt out Ukrainian children – actions that constitute war crimes and could provide evidence that Russia’s actions amount to genocide, it said.
The report was produced as a part of the work of the US State Department-backed Conflict Observatory by the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab. The Observatory was established last year to gather evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
“All levels of Russia’s government are involved,” Yale Humanitarian Research Lab’s Nathaniel Raymond told reporters Tuesday.
“Consider this report a gigantic Amber Alert that we are issuing on Ukraine’s children,” he said.
The report found that found that more than 6,000 children — ranging in age from mere months old to 17 – have been in Russian custody at some point during the course of the nearly year-long war, although the “total number of children is not known and is likely significantly higher than 6,000.”
It identified 43 facilities that are a part of the network, which “stretches from one end of Russia to the other,” including Russian-occupied Crimea, the “eastern Pacific Coast – closer to Alaska than it is to Moscow,” and Siberia, Raymond said.
“The primary purpose of the camps appears to be political reeducation,” he said, noting that at least 32 of the facilities identified in the report “appear to be engaged in systematic re-education efforts that expose children from Ukraine to Russia-centric academic, cultural, patriotic, and in two cases, specifically military education.”
Children trained to use firearms
According to Raymond, a camp in Chechnya and a camp in Crimea “appear to be specifically involved in training children in the use of firearms and military vehicles,” but the researchers have not seen evidence at this point that the children trained in these military camps are being sent into conflict.
The report found that “many children taken to camps are sent with the consent of their parents for an agreed duration of days or weeks and returned to their parents as originally scheduled,” but noted that “in many cases, the ability of parents to provide meaningful consent may be considered doubtful, as the conditions of war and implicit threat from occupying forces represent conditions of duress.”
“Other children have been held for months at these camps, including hundreds of children whose status is unknown; at the time of this report, it is unclear if they have been returned to their families. This report has identified two camps where children’s scheduled return date has been delayed by weeks. At two other camps identified, children’s returns have been indefinitely postponed,” it stated.
Still other children were deemed to be “orphans” and placed with Russian families.
“It’s also critically important to understand that these are children who – the lack of contact that they have, or the only intermittent contact that they may have with their parents, is causing very real and potential harm on a very daily basis,” said Caitlin Howarth, also of Yale Humanitarian Research Lab.
The report said it “identified several dozen federal, regional, and local figures directly engaged in operating and politically justifying the program,” and “at least 12 of these individuals are not on U.S. and/or international sanction lists.”
Raymond noted that “we are not here today making the genocide conclusion, but we are saying that this system is consistent with the statutory basis in both the Rome Statute and the Genocide Convention in terms of the prohibition on transferring children from one group to another.”
US says relocation of children part of effort to ‘suppress Ukraine’s identity’
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that “Russia’s system of forced relocation, reeducation and adoption of Ukraine’s children is a key element of the Kremlin’s systematic efforts to deny and suppress Ukraine’s identity, its history and its culture.”
“The devastating impacts of Russia’s failing war of aggression will be felt for generations to come,” he said at a State Department briefing Tuesday.
The US State Department said in a media note that “the unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians and constitutes a war crime.”
“The fact that these are transfers and deportations of children is unconscionable by any standard,” the note said. “Russia must immediately halt forced transfers and deportations and return the children to their families or legal guardians. Russia must provide registration lists of Ukraine’s relocated and deported children and grant access for outside independent observers to related facilities within Russia-occupied areas of Ukraine and inside Russia itself.”
“Mounting evidence of Russia’s actions lays bare the Kremlin’s aims to deny and suppress Ukraine’s identity, history, and culture,” it continued. “The devastating impacts of Putin’s war on Ukraine’s children will be felt for generations. The United States will stand with Ukraine and pursue accountability for Russia’s appalling abuses for as long as it takes.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington said in a statement, “We took notice of the absurd statements of State Department Spokesperson Ned Price, who had accused our country of ‘forced transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children’ to the territory of the Russian Federation,” the embassy said in a statement on Telegram.
“Russia accepted children who had been forced to flee with their families from the shelling and atrocities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. We do our best to keep minors in families, and in case of absence or death of parents and relatives – to transfer orphans under guardianship. We ensure the protection of their lives and well-being.”
CNN’s Clare Sebastian contributed to this report.