Russia and Ukraine announce exchange of displaced children in conflicting accounts

Russia and Ukraine both announced the exchange of children displaced by the war following talks in Doha on Wednesday but gave different versions of events, statements by officials in both countries reveal.

Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova said that 29 Ukrainian children in Russia would return to their families in Ukraine and 11 Russian children would return from Ukraine to Russia following the first in-person talks between the two countries on displaced children since the start of the war.

Lvova-Belova added that she had requested the assistance of Qatar’s Minister for International Cooperation Lolwah Al-Khater in returning eight children currently in the European Union to their families in Russia on what she hailed as a “momentous day”. She did not give any explanation as to how any of the children had been separated from their families.

Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets, however, denied Lvova-Belova’s claims that Russia and Ukraine had held direct talks, saying that negotiations between the two countries were being conducted “through the mediation of Qatar and Qatari diplomats”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also contradicted Lvova-Belova’s claims, saying that a group of 16 Ukrainian children who had been “forcibly deported to Russia” would be reunited with their families in Ukraine following a meeting between Lubinets and Al-Khater.

Ukrainian and Qatari officials with Ukrainian children in Doha, Qatar, 24 April 2024. Photo: Ombudsman of Ukraine

Ukrainian and Qatari officials with Ukrainian children in Doha, Qatar, 24 April 2024. Photo: Ombudsman of Ukraine

Russia has been repeatedly accused of forcibly transferring children from Ukraine to its territory and “Russifying” them in practices the Council of Europe said were tantamount to “genocide”.

In March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova and Russian President Vladimir Putin for their role in the “war crime of unlawful deportation of children” from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.

Kyiv estimates that almost 20,000 Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia since the start of the full-scale war, with fewer than 400 having returned.

Following Wednesday’s talks, Lvova-Belova said that “talk of thousands of ‘deported’ children” was “nothing more than a myth”. In 2023, she had claimed that Russia had “accommodated” over 700,000 Ukrainian children since the start of its invasion in 2022.

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