Courtesy of the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations

When Sasha, a 12-year-old Ukranian child from Mariupol, was separated from his mother, he was told by Russian forces that his mother did not want him.

Without even being allowed to say goodbye to her, Sasha was deported to Russia for “re-adoption” by a Russian family. According to a recent report from the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab, or HRL, Sasha’s case is not unique. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, Sasha is among thousands of Ukrainian children forcibly relocated to Russia for “re-education” and forced adoption. 

Nathaniel Raymond and Kaveh Khoshnood, HRL’s executive director and faculty director respectively, presented their findings at the United Nations Trusteeship Council Chamber in New York City on Feb. 22. Their presentation documented the widespread relocation, re-education and forced adoption of Ukrainian children like Sasha, which they argued violates international human rights law. 

“The United Nations has a critical role to play in responding to the evidence presented in the HRL report,” Raymond told the News. “If one message was taken away from my presentation, it was that the U.N. needs to act now. And that will require a full court press diplomatically on Russia, primarily by those nations that have not yet condemned the invasion.”

Raymond and Khoshnood spoke at a day-long session detailing Russian humanitarian abuses during the invasion of Ukraine, hosted by the permanent Ukrainian Mission to the United Nations. The event was attended by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, former Ukrainian prisoners of war and foreign ministers from around the world.

Raymond and Khoshnood participated in the event’s afternoon panel, which focused on violations of children’s rights in the invasion. The panel was moderated by Dora Chomiak, president of the Ukrainian humanitarian aid organization Razom. 

Alongside the HRL researchers, the panel featured several speakers, including Hadja Lahbib, who is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium, and Kimberly Kagan, the founder of the Institute for the Study of War. 

“This was a golden opportunity for an academician like me with a passion to ensure our research findings can potentially translate into policy and practice,” Khoshnood told the News. “I hope our evidence-based report convinces U.N. leadership that gross human rights violations are taking place in Ukraine, and Russia must be held accountable for war crime[s].”

Their presentation highlighted the HRL report’s findings: a widespread Russian initiative to deport, “re-educate” and, in some cases, forcibly resettle over 6,000 Ukrainian children through a network of over 43 facilities. 

Using satellite imagery coupled with social media messages from Russian officials and parents searching for their children, the HRL team documented a relocation initiative stretching from Crimea to Siberia. 

“The scientific evidence, unfortunately, is clear: children, particularly infants and toddlers, can experience severe developmental and cognitive impacts from the kinds of abuses documented in this report,” Khoshnood said. “Youth of all ages can be highly susceptible to post traumatic stress disorder and other significant mental health effects.”

Khoshnood added that the report provides evidence of an “unfolding physical and mental health crisis” for Ukrainian children. 

Critically, Raymond said, the report’s estimates are “not the final figures.” The researchers believe that their estimate of 6,000 children in Russia’s custody is “quite low.” Other estimates at the panel ranged as high as 16,207 abducted children, ranging from four months to 17 years of age.

For Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the School of Management professor whose research has investigated the exodus of companies from Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, that scale was shocking.

“How could this be in the 21st century?” Sonnenfeld told the News. “This is just one more piece of evidence to say that [Putin is] … targeting civilian populations.”

Raymond also noted that HRL’s identification of 43 facilities within the relocation network is likely “extremely low.” Due to the time-sensitive need to issue the report, Raymond added that over two dozen camps under investigation were not included in the final HRL study.

“We’re not talking about one minister,” Raymond said. “We’re not talking about one governor. We’re talking about a massive, systematic network that involves every level of Russia’s administration.”

Referring to the fourth Geneva Convention, Raymond issued a number of demands for Russia to comply with human rights law. 

First, he emphasized the need for Russia to register the children in its camps. The scholars highlighted that Russia’s foremost priority should be to systematically account for every child in its network, since researchers are unclear as to the scale of the relocation initiative.

Secondly, Raymond emphasized the need for communication between children and the outside world. According to Raymond, many children had their phones taken when entering the system, preventing them from contacting their loved ones. 

“They need to be able to phone home,” Raymond announced. “It’s time for them to be able to call mom and dad. And that is actually required under the Geneva Convention.”

Raymond also underscored the necessity for Russia to allow international monitors inside the camps. Overall, however, Raymond called for the children to be moved out of Russia entirely, so that they cannot be “used as weapons of the war.”

Thomas-Greenfield also spoke during the event, citing Yale’s report while discussing Russia’s forced relocation of children.

“We must call on Russia to end this inhumane campaign,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Russia must provide a registration list of the children it has removed and allow independent observers inside Russia itself — the U.S. condemns credible reports of child relocation.” 

Since the report’s release, it has also been cited by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in calls to investigate atrocities committed in Ukraine. 

A State Department press release on the report declared the relocation network a “grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention” and called for Russia to “immediately halt” transfers and deportation, to return children to their families, to provide registration lists of the children and to grant outside independent observers access to the network’s facilities.

According to Katya Pavlevych, a Ukrainian activist and volunteer for Razom present at the U.N. meeting, reports of Russian child deportations first started emerging last summer.

Pavlevych spoke to the News about prejudiced attitudes and stereotypes held by Russian foster families toward Ukrainian children — intensified by training for adoptive parents in which they are told to treat Ukrainian youth as “manipulative” and “sneaky.”

After seeing Russian press releases about the Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights — the purported architect of the relocation program — adopting Ukrainian children and shifting their “hostile attitude” into “love” for Russia, Pavlevych felt compelled to get involved in advocacy against the deportations.

“When you hear all that, and you see the person saying that in front of you, you realize that this is not a fictional character,” Pavlevych told the News. “It’s not a title in the magazine. It’s a real person. It could be you.”

While Pavlevych was “honored” to speak at the event, she hoped that the U.N. would respond faster and more effectively to issues surrounding Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“It is obvious now that U.N. agencies don’t have leverage mechanisms to force Russia to cooperate,” Pavlevych told the News. “So I am looking forward to seeing what new mechanisms they will introduce to deliver on their mission of helping children.”

According to Raymond, HRL’s U.N. presentation was a starting point for “broader multilateral and bilateral conversations” with other U.N. member states. 

Two days after the presentation, the HRL team shared its findings with a coalition of member states, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, that supported accountability processes for Russia.

“Now’s the time to press all the buttons on the elevator,” Raymond told the News. “We have to use every single avenue at our disposal to attempt to get these kids home. And right now, that does mean the United Nations. And it means bilateral diplomatic pressure from the community of nations, outside of the U.N. And it means the use of intergovernmental organizations.”

The United Nations was founded in 1945.

Yash Roy and Yurii Stasiuk contributed reporting

Giri Viswanathan was a Science and Technology Editor for the News. Previously, he served as a Photography Editor while covering the School of Public Health for the SciTech Desk. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, Giri is a junior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in Global Affairs with a certificate in Global Health Studies.