(Reuters) - On Tuesday 28 March 2023, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk urged Russians not to adopt children who she said were "stolen" in Ukraine during the war and deported to Russia.
The war that Russia has been waging on its neighbour for thirteen months now has seen millions of people displaced, including families and children. The real number of children who have been forcefully deported to Russia is impossible to establish.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant earlier in March against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia's commissioner for children's rights, accusing them of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.
Vereshchuk said on the Telegram messaging app that orphans have been "stolen in Ukraine" and allegedly given up for adoption in Russia.
"I strongly recommend that Russian citizens do not adopt Ukrainian orphans who were illegally taken out of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine," Vereshchuk, in charge of social issues, said. "Once again I remind all Russian so-called 'adoptive parents' and 'guardians': sooner or later you will have to answer."
According to Ukraine's Ministry of Integration of Occupied Territories, 19,514 Ukrainian children are currently considered illegally deported.
Russia has not concealed a programme under which it has brought thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, but presents it as a humanitarian campaign to protect orphans and children abandoned in the conflict zone.
Most of the movement of people and children occurred in the first few months of the war and before Ukraine started its major counteroffensive to regain occupied territories in the east and south in late August 2022.
Russia's defence ministry said in mid-August 2022 that 3.5 million people had been brought to Russia by then, including more than half a million children.
The United States said in July 2022 that Russia "forcibly deported" 260,000 children from their homes to Russia.
Russian TASS agency cited Vitaly Ganchev, Moscow-installed official of Russia-occupied parts of the Kharkiv region, as saying on Tuesday that a group of children from the region was sent to Russia last year with the consent of their parents or guardians.
"The children were placed in excellent conditions, they are provided with everything necessary. And we will continue to take care of them until their parents come for their return," Ganchev added.