- There is no proof that children of Ukrainian refugees were taken away from their parents in Germany;
- Personal accounts about children taken from refugee families, which have been published by certain media, can not be confirmed because child protection services do not publish information about the cases they are working on;
- The original source of the publications is a Ukrainian website known for spreading pro-Russian disinformation;
- This is not the first time Russian media have spread the message that Ukrainian refugees’ children are being taken away from their parents in Western Europe. The theme is part of the larger Russian narrative of the West as enemy of the family and traditional values.
A publication by Blitz.bg from 22 March claims there is “a growing number of cases” of Ukrainian refugee children being taken away from their parents by child protection services in Germany. The article contains three personal accounts by Ukrainian women who say they were forcefully separated from their children. According to the website’s view count the text has been seen 25,000 times and has been shared on Facebook groups with a combined audience of over 200,000 users.
A search via Sensika, a media monitoring tool, showed the Blitz.bg publication was subsequently reproduced by over 300 unique domains. This happened through the paid sharing network Share4pay and some of those publications were also shared on Facebook.
Blitz.bg points to Russian website Ukraina.ru as the source for the publication. Ukraina.ru is a state-owned web edition, part of the Russia Today media group. It was founded in 2014 to give publicity to the Russian government’s perspective on Ukraine among Ukrainian readers.
The article on Ukraina.ru telling the stories of the three Ukrainian refugee women in Germany points to Strana.ua as the source. Strana is a popular Ukrainian web edition known for its Eurosceptic and anti-western orientation. A 2019 media research project by several journalists’ and human rights NGOs ranked Strana.ua among the four most prominent channels of Russian influence in Ukraine’s media environment. Factcheck.bg found that Strana.ua is the original source of the text published in Bulgarian by Blitz.bg. Before reaching Bulgaria the story circulated on a number of Russian news websites.
Last week a high-level Russian government official joined in with the claims that Ukrainian refugee children were being seized from their parents in Germany in large numbers. Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova made a statement to that effect, expressing concern about the fate of Ukrainian refugee children in the whole of Europe. Zakharova’s statement came only days after the International Criminal Court in the Hague issued warrants for the arrest of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova over the illegal deportation of thousands of children from Ukraine’s occupied regions to Russia. A Bulgarian translation of Zakharova’s statement was published on the Russian embassy in Sofia’s official Facebook page. Their post has about 1500 interactions and over 150 shares.
Child protection authorities do not discuss their cases publicly
The credibility of the personal stories told in the Blitz.bg publication can not be ultimately confirmed. One of the named Ukrainian refugees, Oksana Buratevich, told her story on Ukrainian journalist Jean Novoseltsev’s personal YouTube channel in early February. The events she talked about match those in the story published by Strana.ua. Another one of the women, Elena Kovaleva, has a Facebook profile containing videos and photos of her children whose names match those cited in the article. The profile details say Kovaleva is from Dnipro but is currently living in Witten near Dusseldorf. The Facebook posts do not make it clear if the children are currently with the mother. There is also no indication they were ever separated from her. Factcheck.bg could not find any online information about the third Ukrainian woman named in the article, Elena Dashko.
The removal of children from their family by child protection services is a measure of last resort and is in most cases temporary. It is necessary when the parents themselves are a serious threat to the child’s life and well-being. The decision must be approved by a court. Although these cases are relatively rare, they do occur in all countries with a functioning child protection system.
Children and parents who are subject to those measures are in a very vulnerable position and in order to safeguard their rights their privacy has to be protected. That means child welfare officers can not disclose details and circumstances about a particular case and the grounds for their decisions are not made available for public consideration. Personal accounts of such cases on the media can therefore not be confirmed or denied on the basis of official information from the relevant authorities.
Germany’s national statistics office has not yet published data on the number of children taken out of their families last year but in 2021 that number was 28,518. That does not include the children who contacted the authorities themselves, requesting to be placed in a foster family or care home, but only cases where the procedure was initiated by the authorities. The total number of children in Germany in 2021 was between 13 and 14 million, which means that two out of every 1,000 children were subject to the measure. According to the German migration service, there are over 1 million Ukrainian refugees living in the country and more than 350,000 of them are children under 18. Those statistics show that even if the personal stories in the publication are real, they are not enough to justify the claim that German authorities are deliberately targeting the children of Ukrainian refugees in the country.
Another revival of the theme about Ukrainian refugee children seized from parents in Europe
This is not the first time stories about Ukrainian refugee children being seized en masse by European authorities have appeared on Russian media. Similar claims circulated back in July 2022, originating from Russian state agency RIA Novosti. The source quoted by the agency was a representative of the Russian-appointed administration of the occupied Zaporizhzhia region. Vladimir Rogov, leader of the pro-Russian collaborationist organisation “We Are Together with Russia”, told RIA Novosti he was hearing from refugees from different parts of Ukraine whose children were “being taken away from them en masse in Europe”. Rogov also said he was aware of 79 such cases, most of them is Germany. The RIA article was quoted on scores of Russian websites.
Ukrainian fact-checking platform Stopfake.org examined the claims from July 2022 and contacted several child protection offices in Germany but none of them confirmed that such cases had occurred. The press office of the German police also said they were unaware of any such cases.
Russian propaganda and the fear of children’s rights
The claims that social workers in Europe are seizing children from their parents for all sorts of petty reasons are part of the anti-Western narrative Russia has been spreading for years. It tries to portray Europe as an unsafe, dangerous place, where traditional family values are not respected. That narrative is also being spread domestically through stories of Russians abroad whose children were seized from them or even Europeans ‘escaping’ to Russia to get away from child protection services in their own countries.
Personal accounts of that kind, which can not be officially confirmed, are being used to create the impression that European values such as children’s rights are utterly alien, incomprehensible and unacceptable to Russians. That suggestion also relies on the lack of trust in public institutions and the expectation that their employees will exceed their mandate. That is why fearmongering about child protection services really takes hold in societies where trust in public institutions is low. It is a long-term strategy used by Russian propaganda for promoting a negative view of the West.
Personal stories published in the media about children seized from refugee parents can not be confirmed because child protection services do not publish information about the cases they are working on. The original source for the Blitz.bg article is a Ukrainian website known for spreading pro-Russian disinformation. This is not the first time pro-Russian media have spread stories of Ukrainian refugee children taken from their parents in large numbers. The theme is part of a larger Russian narrative about the West as an enemy of the family and traditional values.