Russia returns four abducted Ukrainian children to their families after deal brokered by Qatar
Ukraine says that thousands of its children have been abducted since Russia began its invasion in February 2022
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Thousands of Ukrainian children have been separated from their families since Russia first began its full-scale invasion over a year ago, prompting Qatar and several other international mediators to launch a pilot repatriation scheme to reunite the children with their families.
According to Ukraine, it has identified 20,000 of its children which it believes has been taken by Russia. However, the true number of those who have been forcibly deported is thought to be much higher.
The four children in question, the youngest of whom is two-years-old and the oldest of whom is seventeen, are the first to be returned to Ukraine as part of Qatar's scheme, after family reunification talks were stepped up over the summer.
One child has already been reunited with their family after travelling through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, and another is en route with his mother via Qatar. The remaining two are expected to arrive in Ukraine on Tuesday (17 October).
It comes after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, accusing him and his commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, of abducting Ukrainian children - which it said amounted to war crimes.
In a statement, the ICC said at the time: "[Putin] is allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
Russia insisted that its motives were purely humanitarian, claiming it evacuated thousands of Ukrainian children to protect them from danger. But Ukraine said its children were forcibly taken across the border, with efforts being made to strip them of their national identity.
"They want to separate children from their biological families, 'Russify' these children, hide these children, and then transfer them to another ethnic group," Daria Gerasymchuk, an adviser to the Ukrainian president for children's rights and rehabilitation, previously told the BBC.
It is thought that so far only around 400 Ukrainian children have been returned to their families, with many of these reunions only made possible after Ukrainian families made gruelling and dangerous journeys to Russia.
The matter is so contentious that Ukraine and Russia do not speak directly on this issue. This is why Qatar has been part of highly sensitive back-channel talks, which have also involved Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and former Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, according to The Financial Times.
One diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the process, said that the return of the four children will act as a test of the scheme worked on by Qatar, after it headed talks with Moscow and Kyiv. If the pilot proves successful, it is hoped that more repatriations will follow.
Meanwhile, in an official statement, Lolwah Al Khater, Qatari minister for international cooperation, said: "Over the past several weeks we have remained in continuous dialogue with our Ukrainian and Russian counterparts, identifying areas of common interest around which to facilitate indirect negotiations.
"We are encouraged by the commitment and openness shown by both sides throughout the process, which we sincerely hope will lead to more initiatives aimed at de-escalating tensions and building trust between the two parties."
In a post on Telegram, Russia's commissioner for children's rights Ms Lvova-Belova said that work to return children to their families would continue, with Russia helping to pay for transportation, accommodation, and DNA tests where necessary. She also quoted President Putin as saying: "We have never been against children being reunited with their families."