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30th Nov 2022

Rights group documents forcible-transfer war crimes in Ukraine

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Russia has forcibly transferred Ukrainian citizens from their homes to Russia and Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine in breach of international law, a new report warned on Thursday (1 September).

New York-based pressure group Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented illegal population transfers of Ukrainian civilians from Mariupol and the Kharkiv region — many of whom were also subjected to security screening processes used to forcibly deport civilians, known as "filtration".

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The filtration process includes temporary detention, data collection, and interrogation, among others.

The HRW report collects testimonials of, for example, people fleeing the city of Mariupol who were given no alternative by Russian forces, but to board evacuation buses travelling to Russian-occupied areas. Others were put onto evacuation buses without knowing their destination. 

Meanwhile, people who had their own transportation could reach Ukrainian-held territory.

"We would have used the opportunity to go to Ukraine if we could have, for sure. But we had no choice, no possibility to go there," one woman from Mariupol told HRW.

Such deportations and population transfers are considered war crimes if committed during armed conflict. Under international law, military forces can only displace or evacuate civilians temporarily to protect them from attacks.

In July, experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) accused Russia of deporting more than 1.3 million Ukrainians to Russia, including over 200,000 children. According to Russia's state news agency, 2.8 million Ukrainians had entered Russia from Ukraine, including almost 500,000 children. 

The number of Ukrainians transferred to Russia and Russian-occupied territories remains unclear.

'Filtration' — punitive and abusive

"Ukrainian civilians should not be left with no choice but to go to Russia … and no one should be forced to undergo an abusive screening process to reach safety," senior HRW researcher Belkis Wille said.

But tens of thousands of civilians have been reportedly detained at the so-called filtration centres.

The HRW report details how, during the screening process, Russian forces and officials of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic interrogate civilians, search through their personal belongings and phones, and oblige them to provide personal data, such as fingerprints or passport details.

"The filtration process … is punitive and abusive, has no legal underpinnings, and violates the right to privacy," HRW said.

Testimonials also illustrate Russian or Russian-affiliated officials taking away passports from civilians, despite passing through the filtration process — a situation that makes it difficult for them to cross Russian checkpoints and puts them at a higher risk of being detained in occupied territories.

Those who do not pass the filtration process due to, for example, their suspected ties to the Ukrainian army or nationalist groups are detained — and some even disappeared, the report said, citing testimonials of family members.

At least 50 Ukrainians under arrest at the detention centre in Olenivka were reportedly killed in late July.

Ukrainians transferred to Russia told HRW investigators that some were forced to file official requests for temporary asylum in Russia or sign a statement admitting to having witnessed war crimes by Ukrainian forces.

After crossing the border into Russia, some transferred Ukrainians try to leave the country and reach EU member states— although many face obstacles such as the lack of information or travel documents and others are interrogated before being allowed to leave the country.

There is no official data on how many Ukrainians who went to Russia have since left for other countries.

The human rights watchdog called on all EU member states to ensure that Ukrainians can enter their territories from Russia, even if they do not have travel documents.

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