Are Ukrainian children being illegally brought to Belarus?
It's alleged that children in Russian-occupied Ukraine are being brought to Russia and Belarus against their will. Authorities there say the children are merely recovering abroad.
"We are seeing how children from Ukraine are brought to Belarus and Russia with the support of [Belarusian strongman Alexander] Lukashenko," Belarusian opposition politician Pavel Latushko told DW. Due to threats from Lukashenko, Latushko now lives Polish exile. In March of this year, a court in Belarus sentenced him to 18 years in prison in absentia.
According to the EU and the Ukrainian president's commissioner for children's rights, Daria Herasymchuk, more than 16,000 children are believed to have been deported so far from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, some of them from orphanages. In March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) had issued arrest warrants against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the alleged abduction of Ukrainian children.
Brining Ukrainian minors to Belarus also violates the 1949 Geneva Convention, says Latushko. He stresses that Belarus allowed Russia to attack neighboring Ukraine from its territory, which is why he says it cannot be considered a "neutral state." These developments prompted Latushko to collect evidence that he intends to submit to the prosecutor general of Ukraine and the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Belarusian state media are reporting on the presence of Ukrainian children in the country. "The propagandists say the children are brought to Belarus to recover. But is it possible a six-year-old child will independently decide to leave his or her country, Ukraine? No, it is not," Latushko said. It would be different if families left voluntarily or if there was permission from the Ukrainian authorities. But this is not the case, he said.
Aiding children of the Donbass?
There are special projects within the Union State of Belarus and Russia aimed at bringing Ukrainian minors aged six to 15 to Belarus, says Latushko. He says these projects were initiated by Putin and Lukashenko. A decision was reached in September 16, 2022, for example, to "aid the children of the Donbass" and transport of 1,050 minors to Belarus.
Financial support for these projects is provided by Belaruskali, a state enterprise and one of the largest potash fertilizer producers in the world. "The money is sent to [national Paralympic swimmer] Alexey Talai's foundation, based on Ukrainian territory, which organizes the transport of the children," Latushko says. Children are also brought to Belarus by the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which is part of the Moscow Patriarchate, he said.
In October 2022, state secretary of the Russian-Belarusian Union State Dmitry Mtsentsev visited the "Dubrava" children's camp near Minsk, which is owned by Belaruskali. He said that "tens of millions of rubles have been allocated to the project" and that the work would continue. "We were happy to support the children's trip to Belarus via Rostov," Mtsentsev said. He added that the aim was to help the children "forget their difficult experiences and realize their dreams" so that they can become "dependable citizens of their country."
Who is Alexej Talaj?
The Talai Charitable Foundation plans to bring over 1,000 Ukrainian children to Belarus in April and May. DW asked Alexey Talai, who heads the foundation, to explain his organization's role in facilitating the transport, yet received no reply. Talai, who is also an entrepreneur regularly takes parts in events supporting Lukashenko. In response to Latushko's accusations, Talai wrote on his Telegram channel that "not even The Hague will prevent us from doing charity work and continuing to help the children of the Donbass."
In April, Talai visited the more than 300 Ukrainian minors at the "Dubrava" camp. There, he handed out ribbons in the colors of the Russian and Belarusian flags, among other things. The institution was also visited by pro-government political scientist Alexander Shpakovsky, the first secretary of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union Alexander Lukyanov, and members of the militarist "Rodnik" club.
Latushko said that raising children to hold anti-Ukrainian sentiments can be called a war crime according to international law. He added that Dmitry Shvayba, who heads Minsk's trade union association of miners and chemists, admitted that Belarus wants to allow Ukrainian children attend vocational schools and then take a job. "So they are bringing potential workers to Belarus."
How have Ukraine and UNICEF responded?
The former Ukrainian president's commissioner for children's rights, Mykola Kuleba, who today heads the Save Ukraine Foundation, said on TV channel Belsat that Ukraine does not yet have evidence of children being transported to Belarus. He said that an investigation into this was necessary. He did not rule out an arrest warrant would be issued for Alexander Lukashenko and others if sufficient evidence had been gathered. Even shuttling children back and forth between Ukraine and Belarus could count as a war crime, Kuleba said.
Aaron Greenberg, regional advisor for Europe and Central Asia, child protection at UNICEF, said his organization is "aware of reports that some Ukrainian children have been moved from Russian Federation to Belarus for short periods of time. We continue to be deeply concerned about reports of evacuations of children that take place without adequate safeguards, hasty returns of children from places of relocation that don't consider children's best interests."
UNICEF is also concerned about " expedited procedures for changing or adding nationality, which are unnecessary to protect children and should not occur during an emergency."
This article was translated from German.
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