Russia is running a sprawling network of camps as part of a systematic effort to relocate and re-educate thousands of children from Ukraine, according to a United States government-sponsored study released Tuesday.
The independent study by the Conflict Observatory, part of the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab and established by the State Department to gather evidence of human rights violations in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, said it had definitively documented around 6,000 Ukrainian children being taken from their homes.
However, the total number of minors “potentially forcibly transferred” to Russia and Russian-occupied territories is likely much higher, even in the several hundred thousand, said Caitlin Howarth, the Conflict Observatory's director of operations.
The Russian program is a “systematic whole-of-government approach to the relocation, reeducation in some cases, adoption and forced adoption of Ukrainian children” involving at least 43 facilities in Russia and spanning all levels of the Russian government, said Nathaniel Raymond, one of the report’s authors and executive director of Yale’s Humanitarian Research Lab.
The age of the children documented in the report ranged from 4 months to 17 years, the study's authors said.
“The level of mass re-education is a very clear systematic attempt to erase the history, culture and language of Ukraine,” she told reporters in Washington during a presentation of the report.
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Some children were sent to military training camps in the Russian republic of Chechnya and Russia-occupied Crimea, according to the report. One camp near the Chechen capital, Grozny, was organized at the initiative of Russia’s federal government and was for boys designated to be at risk, including those with criminal records, the study added.
This program has links to the highest levels of government, added Howarth, citing names of senior officials listed and photographed on the camp’s website.
“These are some of the people who have the highest access to people who go straight to the top, to President Vladimir Putin himself and of course to the top of the Chechen Republic,” she said.
Ukraine's government did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report's findings, but from the early days of the invasion, Kyiv has accused Russia of forcibly transferring children and adults.
Russian officials have consistently denied the accusations, calling them a “fantasy.” In August, the Russian Department of Information and Press said in a statement to NBC News that the allegations were “groundless and are conjectures aimed at discrediting Russia.”
Russia's embassy to the United States said on Wednesday that the country had taken in children who were forced to flee the fighting."
"Russia accepted children who had been forced to flee with their families from the shelling," the embassy said on the Telegram messaging platform. "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."
But Raymond, the study co-author and a lecturer in the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at the Yale School of Public Health, said, “All levels of Russia’s government are involved. ... This is not just a federal operation — it involves … at least four regional governors and local officials, including in some cases, civil society.”
“Basically consider this report a gigantic amber alert that we are issuing on Ukraine’s children,” Raymond added.
At least 12 people in the chain of command headed up by Russia’s commissioner for child rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, are not on the U.S.’s international sanctions list, according to the authors of the report.
The study’s authors added that the actions described in the report are a violation of the Geneva Convention — which prohibits the change of a child’s personal status, including nationality — and may constitute a war crime or crimes against humanity.
International human rights groups like Amnesty International have also documented the forced relocation of thousands of Ukrainian civilians. In November, Amnesty highlighted the “plight of unaccompanied, separated or orphaned children,” deeming the cases as “particularly concerning.”
In August, the U.S. said at the U.N. Security Council that it had evidence that “hundreds of thousands” of Ukrainian citizens had been interrogated, detained and forcibly deported to Russia in “a series of horrors” overseen by officials from Russia’s presidency.
The charge came during a meeting to discuss Russian so-called filtration operations, which involve Ukrainians who are fleeing the war being forcibly moved to Russia and passing through a series of “filtration points.”
At the time, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said estimates indicated that thousands of children had been subjected to filtration.