Ukrainian officials have accused the Russian government of engaging in a policy of deportation, moving civilians — including thousands of children — into Russia against their will and detaining them “like souls for an exchange fund.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday said that more than 2,000 children have been “stolen” from the besieged port city of Mariupol, which has been under sustained Russian attack since the early days of the invasion.
Calling the situation in the city a “humanitarian catastrophe,” Zelensky told a collection of independent Russian journalists that “according to our information, more than two thousand children were taken out. That means stolen.”
“Their exact location is unknown. They can be there with or without parents,” Zelensky said. “All in all, it’s a disaster. I can’t tell you what that looks like at all. It’s scary. They hold them like souls for an exchange fund.”
Ukrainian officials have made similar claims regarding other regions. CNN independently cannot verify claims about the number of children taken out of Mariupol and other towns into Russia.
What has been claimed? The Russian Defense Ministry first said on March 20 that 16,434 people, including 2,389 children, had been evacuated from various locations a day before. Those locations included the Russia-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, according to the ministry, which said that people left of their own volition.
But the next day, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the same number of children had in fact been forcibly evacuated from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by Russian forces. “Such actions are a gross violation of international law, in particular international humanitarian law,” the ministry said.
Since then, estimates from Ukraine of the number of people deported to Russia have risen.
On Saturday, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the Ukrainian government estimated the number of Ukrainians forcibly deported to Russia since the invasion was nearly 40,000.
Those claims were bolstered by Denis Pushilin, the leader of the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic, who said Sunday that around 1,700 people are being “evacuated” daily from the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol and other towns.
“An average of about 1,700 people are arriving to the Volodar temporary accommodation center for evacuees every day and, in turn, the same number of people are leaving it,” Pushilin said in a statement on Telegram, referring to a settlement known in Ukrainian as Nikolske, about 13 miles northwest of Mariupol.
“Residents of Mariupol and other settlements that are being released from the occupation of the Kyiv regime arrive here,” Pushilin said. “People are provided with basic necessities, medical care, and then evacuated to the Russian Federation.”
Debate over Red Cross office: Amid the disputes over the alleged Russian policy, there has also been wrangling over the role of humanitarian network the Red Cross.
On Friday, Vereshchuk accused the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) head Peter Maurer of taking a “very questionable decision” to open an office in Rostov – which lies about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the border with Ukraine. Such an office “legitimized” Russia’s deportations, she suggested.
The Red Cross issued a statement rejecting those claims. The ICRC, which generally keeps a low public profile, responded following what it called “false information circulating online” that it was helping Russia move tens of thousands of people out of the country.
It said it had no office in Rostov but is “scaling up our regional set up to be able to respond to needs where we see them. Our priority is to ensure a steady supply of lifesaving aid reaches people, wherever they are.”
CNN’s Nathan Hodge, Andrew Carey and Olga Voitovych contributed reporting.