Russian and Russian-proxy forces have been forcibly transferring Ukrainian civilians, including those fleeing hostilities, to Russia or areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia, Human Rights Watch or HRW said in a report released on Sept 1.
The 71-page report, "We Had No Choice': 'Filtration' and the War Crime of Forcibly Transferring Ukrainian Civilians to Russia" documents what HRW says are a serious violation of the laws of war that constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity.
HRW presents evidence that Russian and Russian-affiliated authorities have subjected thousands of Ukrainian citizens to a form of compulsory, punitive, and abusive security screening called “filtration.”
Many of those who have undergone the process have been given no choice but to go to Russia, HRW said.
HRW interviewed 54 people who went to Russia, went through filtration, had family members or friends who were transferred to Russia, or who supported Ukrainians trying to leave Russia. Most had fled the Mariupol area, and several were transferred from the Kharkiv region. Human Rights Watch also interviewed dozens of civilians from the Mariupol area who were able to escape the war zone to Ukrainian-controlled territory without undergoing filtration.
"Ukrainian civilians should not be left with 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 undergo an abusive screening process to reach safety."
Human Rights Watch said it had written 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 southeastern port city of Mariupol. 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-controlled territory. "Of course, we would have used the opportunity to go to Ukraine if we could have, for sure," said a woman transferred from Mariupol. "But we had no choice, no possibility to go there."
Some people said they went to Russia voluntarily, including men avoiding Ukraine's martial law, which, with limited exceptions, does not allow men aged 18 to 60 to leave the country.
Although the total number of Ukrainian civilians transferred to Russia remains unclear, many were displaced and transported in a manner and context that makes them illegal forced transfers, Human Rights Watch said. In late July, the Russian News Agency (TASS) reported that over 2.8 million Ukrainians had entered the Russian Federation from Ukraine, including 448,000 children.
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, duress, or detention if they remain, and the occupying power is taking advantage of a coercive environment to transfer them. Transferring or displacing civilians is not justified or lawful on humanitarian grounds if the humanitarian crisis triggering the displacement is the result of unlawful activity by the occupying power.
During the "filtration" process, which thousands of residents from the Mariupol area were forced to undergo while trying to flee, Russian and Russian-affiliated officials in the Russian-occupied region typically collected civilians" biometric data, including fingerprints and front and side facial images; conducted body searches, and searched personal belongings and phones; and asked them about their political views.
People who “failed” the process, apparently due to their suspected ties to the Ukrainian military or to nationalist groups, were detained in Russian-controlled regions, including at the detention center in Olenivka, where at least 50 Ukrainian detainees were reportedly killed during a blast on July 29.
"Herding people further into Russian-occupied areas and onward to Russia without consent should immediately stop," Wille said. "Russian authorities and international organizations should do everything they can to help those taken to Russia against their will who want to return home to be able to do so safely."