Thousands of Ukrainian children reportedly have gone missing since the start of the war on Feb. 24. A growing body of evidence suggests that some of these children have been forcibly taken to Russia. According to Ukrainian Permanent Representative to the U.N. Sergiy Kyslytsya, more than 234,000 children had been transferred to Russia by early June.
The kidnapping of minors is a violation of both the U.N. Genocide Convention and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet recent research suggests such tactics have stark precedents. In the past, authoritarian regimes in Spain and in Argentina, among others, resorted to child kidnapping to target their opponents — just as these regimes entered their most lethal and repressive phases. These historical cases offer lessons about how Ukraine can hold perpetrators accountable.
What do we know about Ukraine’s missing children?
Rumors about the abduction of Ukrainian minors date to March 19, when the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry reported that Russian forces had taken 2,389 children from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Simultaneously, Pyotr Andryushchenko, assistant to the mayor of Mariupol, reported that around 4,500 city residents had been taken against their will across the border into Russia.
Although the exact numbers of kidnapped adults and children remains unclear, growing evidence suggests these are large numbers. In mid-April, an Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe report detailed claims by Ukraine officials that Russian troops had deported approximately 500,000 civilians. The numbers have grown since then, with Ukrainian authorities recently estimating that 1.2 million Ukrainians have been deported against their will.
These claims have yet to be verified, and locating specific children and families has proved difficult in wartime. But the reports of forced deportations to Russia and the threat to Ukraine’s most vulnerable citizens have raised alarm in the European parliament.
Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian children’s rights ombudswoman, reportedly met with Vladimir Putin in early March to discuss bringing changes before the State Duma that would simplify Russian law, speeding up the adoption of children from the war zone in Ukraine.
In April, Lvova-Belova confirmed that as many as 1,560 children from Ukraine had arrived in Russia without their parents — and that a number of these children, she said, could be adopted by Russian families. And Russian Sen. Lilia Gumerova openly discussed how Ukrainian children “from the liberated territories” lacked knowledge of the Russian language and announced that special summer camps would be organized to teach them Russian.
Regimes elsewhere also stole children
The abduction and illegal appropriation of minors by dictatorships are hardly new phenomena. Argentina’s 1976-1983 military regime, for example, was responsible for the systematic disappearance of approximately 30,000 political opponents — but also “stole” an estimated 500 children born during their mothers’ detention.
Through an illegal network of adoptions, these children were often put in the hands of the families of the same military or police officers who had been involved in the murder of the children’s biological parents. In other instances, babies ended up in orphanages or were adopted by families loyal to the military regime, with false documentation concealing their real origins.
These children were treated as “war booty,” with the military dictatorship’s main goal being “to eliminate any vestige of its leftist enemies and their legacy.” Against all odds, since 1977, the Grandmothers of May Square nongovernmental organization has successfully identified and reunited 130 children with their biological families.
The story of Spain’s “stolen babies” came to light in 2011. The practice of transferring children — thousands of whom were removed from political opponents, placed in care homes or given up for adoption to families loyal to the regimes — started under General Francisco Franco during the 1936—1939 civil war. The exact number of children stolen from families considered politically suspect is unknown, but some estimates are in the tens of thousands.
Advocates describe the tactic of involuntarily taking children from women who had fought on the Republican side as an effort by the Franco regime “to wipe out communist tendencies” — a goal that recalls Putin’s stated ambition to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Spain’s illegal adoption network later turned into a “moneymaking business” that continued until the 1980s.
What are the lessons for Ukraine?
Peak moments of repression by authoritarian regimes involve an extreme dehumanizing of the enemy, which is extended to children, denying their innate innocence. History shows that these periods often coincide with more widespread abuses of human rights. In Spain and Latin America, this meant the mass elimination of opponents, including the stealing of their children.
In its war against Ukraine, Russia appears to be using the abduction of Ukrainian children to put extra pressure on the Ukrainian population and the government to surrender.
Until recently, perpetrators of crimes against children rarely were held accountable. However, the tide is turning. In 2012, a Buenos Aires federal court sentenced former Argentine dictators Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone to 50 and 15 years in prison, respectively, for overseeing the systematic theft of babies from political prisoners.
In the recently published book “The Condor Trials,” one of us has identified at least 45 criminal proceedings for transnational human rights violations in 1970s South America. Among them, an Argentine court sentenced four former intelligence officers to life in prison in 2020 for crimes against humanity that included stealing and concealing two Uruguayan children.
As Ukraine begins to hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes, these historical cases and recent trials in South America for transnational human rights violations serve as an example of how the truth eventually comes to light. And, most importantly, these cases illustrate how individuals responsible for the abduction of children can be held accountable in a court of law.
Svitlana Chernykh is senior lecturer at Australian National University. Her work has been published in the Journal of Politics, Comparative Political Studies and Political Research Quarterly, among others.
Francesca Lessa is lecturer at the University of Oxford. Her work has been published in the Human Rights Quarterly, International Journal of Transitional Justice and Latin American Research Review. She is the author of “The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America” (Yale University Press, 2022).