Russian and Russian-affiliated forces forcibly transferred Ukrainian civilians, including those fleeing hostilities, to the Russian Federation or Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday. .
The 71-page report, “‘We had no choice’: the ‘filtration’ and the crime of forcible transfer of Ukrainian civilians to Russia” documents the transfers of Ukrainian civilians. The transfers constitute a serious violation of the laws of war which constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity. Russian and Russian-affiliated authorities have also subjected thousands of Ukrainian citizens to a mandatory, punitive and abusive form of security screening called “screening”.
“Ukrainian civilians should have no choice but to go to Russia,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “And no one should be forced to submit to an abusive screening process to achieve security.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 54 people who had traveled to Russia, been screened, had family or friends transferred to Russia, or supported Ukrainians trying to leave Russia. Most had fled the Mariupol region and several had been transferred from the Kharkiv region. Human Rights Watch also interviewed dozens of civilians from the Mariupol region who were able to escape from the war zone into Ukrainian-held territory without being screened.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Russian government on July 5, 2022 with a summary of its findings and questions, but received no response.
Russian and Russian-affiliated officials organized transport for people fleeing the besieged port city of Mariupol in the south-east of the country. They told some civilians that they had no choice but to stay in Russian-occupied areas or go to Russia and should “forget” about going to Ukrainian-held territory. “Of course we would have taken the opportunity to go to Ukraine if we could, that’s for sure,” said a woman transferred from Mariupol. “But we had no choice, no possibility of going there.
Others said that military or other personnel at checkpoints instructed fleeing Ukrainians to go to Russia or the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”), an area of the Donetsk region. controlled by armed groups affiliated with Russia and occupied by Russia. The soldiers who rounded up civilians in the occupied territories told them the same thing. People who had the financial means could organize their own transport to the territory under Ukrainian control.
Residents of some villages and a town in the eastern Kharkiv region bordering Russia were also forcibly transferred to Russia. A 70-year-old man from the village of Ruska Lozova said Russian forces told him, ‘You were living under our orders and so if the Ukrainian army comes, they will punish you’, and told him, ‘You will be executed’ . If he did not give in, hundreds of families from the village left for Russia.
Some people said they traveled to Russia voluntarily, mainly as a transit route to reach the European Union, including to avoid travel restrictions.
Although the total number of Ukrainian civilians transferred to Russia remains uncertain, many were moved and transported in a manner and in a context that makes them illegal forcible transfers, Human Rights Watch said. In mid-August, the Russian media reported that more than 3.4 million Ukrainians entered the Russian Federation from Ukraine, including 555,000 children.
Some of those who had access to smartphones and social media were able to connect with activists who helped them leave Russia for Estonia, Latvia or Georgia. At the border, however, some had difficulty because they had forgotten their identity papers when they fled Ukraine.
The laws of war prohibit Russian or Russian-affiliated forces from forcing Ukrainian civilians, individually or en masse, to evacuate to Russia. A forcible transfer is a war crime and a potential crime against humanity and includes a transfer in circumstances in which a person consents to move only because they fear consequences such as violence, coercion or detention if it remains, and that the occupying power takes advantage of a coercive environment to transfer them. The transfer or displacement of civilians is not justified or lawful on humanitarian grounds if the humanitarian crisis that triggered the displacement is the result of unlawful activity by the occupying power.
During the “filtration” process, which thousands of residents of the Mariupol region were forced to undergo as they attempted to flee, Russian and Russian-affiliated officials in the Russian-occupied region generally collected the biometric data of the civilians, including fingerprints and faces from the front and side. pictures; carried out body searches and searched personal effects and telephones; and asked them about their political views.
A Mariupol man said he and dozens of Mariupol residents stayed for two weeks in a village school in filthy conditions before being taken away for screening. He said many had fallen ill and feared what lay ahead. “We felt like hostages,” he said.
Although Russia may have legitimate grounds for carrying out security checks on people voluntarily seeking to enter Russian territory, the screening process – in its scope and the systemic way in which Ukrainian civilians were forced to undergo it – is punitive and abusive, has no legal basis, and violates the right to privacy, Human Rights Watch said.
People who “failed” the process, apparently because of their alleged links with the Ukrainian army or with nationalist groups, were detained in Russian-controlled areas, including the Olenivka detention center, where at least 50 Ukrainian detainees were reportedly killed during a blast July 29.
Russian and Russian-affiliated forces in areas they occupy should ensure that civilians can safely move to Ukrainian-held territory if they wish, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure that people boarding the buses are fully informed of where the buses are going and have options if they do not wish to travel to Russia. They should stop pressuring Ukrainian citizens to go to Russia and facilitate the return to Ukraine of those who wish.
The Russian authorities should also end all ongoing processes of collecting and storing biometric data of people in Ukraine or coming from Ukraine. They should only collect biometric data where it is lawful, proportionate and necessary and inform individuals why their data is collected, how it will be used and for how long it will be retained.
“The gathering of people further into Russian-occupied areas and into Russia without consent should immediately cease,” Wille said. “The Russian authorities and international organizations must do everything in their power to help those taken to Russia against their will who wish to return home so that they can do so safely.