Lawyers of the Lithuanian human rights organization Every Human Being and activists of the Kidmapping project have demanded that the United Nations (UN) investigate alleged violations and inaction by Karim Atassi, the head of the Russian office of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Lawyer Polina Murygina, founder of the Every Human Being project, told The Insider that Atassi has done nothing with regard to the forced removal of Ukrainian children to Russia, and is covering up the crimes of the Russian authorities.
Atassi has been the head of the UNHCR office in the Russian Federation since May 2022. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to ensure worldwide protection and solutions for refugees. Refugee protection is the organization’s main mission. However, according to the human rights activist, Atassi is not doing his job:
“We see that in relation to deported children and civilian hostages, Karim Atassi has not fulfilled his mission. In the case of the children, he took no action apart from visiting several places with [Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner and the subject of an ICC arrest warrant – The Insider] Maria Lvova-Belova and claiming that the children were being held in good conditions.
The forcible deportation of children falls within the conventional definition of genocide. It is not only a war crime but also genocide. In fact, it is known from returned children that they are physically abused, poorly fed and often kept in inhumane conditions.
Karim Atassi has taken no action to collect a list of the children's names or even a list of their places of detention. In comparison, the Kidmapping project has found more than 250 places where the children are being held. At the same time, human rights activists and activists are limited in their ability to visit these places – despite the statements made by Karim Atassi. International humanitarian organizations have been promised access to these children. In March, Every Human Being approached Karim Atassi for assistance in gaining such access. We have received no response.
The lack of lists by institution makes it difficult to find the parents and relatives of these children. In a number of cases, the parents of these children have passed ‘filtration’ [As part of Russia’s attempts to ‘filter’ the Ukrainian population, Ukrainian citizens are often strip-searched for ‘nationalistic’ tattoos, photographed, and have their fingerprints taken in camps at the Russian border – The Insider]. Every Human Being, for example, is searching for a forcibly deported girl on request of her grandmother. Both of the girls’ parents are dead.
Children continue to be adopted, which makes looking for them highly complicated. Basically no action has been taken by Karim Atassi to document this war crime and act of genocide. He did not visit or gather information at the children's institutions where there were testimonies of physical abuse, etc. At the same time, the separation of families is a violation of children's rights that needs to be rectified.
He joins Russia’s propaganda and speculates with numbers: a figure of 1,500-2,500 ‘evacuated children’ was voiced. There are over 20,000 such children on the Children of War website alone. He did not ask Maria Lvova-Belova about the fate of the remaining 17,500 children.
There is not a single condemnation of Russia’s actions to deport children on his part as a UN representative. He did not collect any information about the deported children to give to the Ukrainian side. And he has not communicated with Ukraine.
His inaction as an official is an obstacle to the return of orphans to their homeland in Ukraine, as well as to the reunification of children with their families, if they have families.
Humanitarian organizations are limited in their resources and capabilities. Without the assistance of Karim Atassi, there is virtually no possibility to visit the children, to establish a list of names. This creates risks in the future – as long as the children are not identified, as long as there is no exact number and their fates are not tracked, anything can happen to them. They're not safe.”
The independent investigative outlet IStories recently estimated that Russia may have forcibly deported close to 2,500 orphaned children out of Ukraine. The publication noted that in 2022, a number of regions saw a sharp increase in the number of children who were put up for adoption in the government’s official database.
The journalists were able to confirm that Ukrainian children were indeed listed in the database in at least two of Russia’s regions. These children include not only orphans who lived in orphanages in Ukraine, but also those whose parents were killed in the war. They are placed in children's institutions, which regularly host “patriotic” events that involve weaving camouflage nets for the Russian military and attend meetings with soldiers who have been to the front.