‘Filtration’ and the crime of forcibly transferring Ukrainian civilians to Russia

By | September 14, 2022

Human Rights Watch:

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russian and Russian-affiliated officials have forcibly transferred Ukrainian civilians, including those fleeing hostilities, to areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia or to the Russian Federation, a serious violation of the laws of war amounting to a war crime and a potential crime against humanity. Many of those forcibly transferred were fleeing the besieged port city of Mariupol.

Russian and Russian-affiliated authorities also subjected thousands of these Ukrainian citizens to a process referred to by Russia as “filtration,” a form of compulsory security screening, in which they typically collected civilians’ biometric data, including fingerprints and front and side facial images; conducted body searches, and searched personal belongings and phones; and questioned them about their political views. Ukrainian civilians were effectively interned as they waited to undergo this process, with many reporting that they were housed in overcrowded and squalid conditions, for periods as short as several hours for up to almost a month.

Forced transfers and the filtration process constitute and involve separate and distinct abuses against civilians, although many Ukrainian civilians experienced both.

This report documents the forcible transfer of Ukrainian civilians from Mariupol and the Kharkiv region to Russia and Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. Unlike combatants who, once captured, are held as prisoners of war (POWs) and may be moved to enemy territory, the forcible transfer of civilians is prohibited under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, and can be prosecuted as a war crime and a crime against humanity. The report describes various kinds of pressure the Russian military and other Russian and Russian-affiliated officials used to make Ukrainian civilians fleeing hostilities go to Russia or the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), an area of the Donetsk region controlled by Russian-affiliated armed groups and currently occupied by Russia (DNR is used in this report as a reference to this area, not as recognition of any claims to sovereignty). The report also describes the many challenges Ukrainian civilians faced and the abuses they suffered as they attempted to flee Mariupol for Ukrainian-controlled territory and avoid going to Russia, or as they tried to leave Russia for a third country.

On June 20, Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, claimed that 1.2 million Ukrainians had been forcibly taken to Russia, including 240,000 children. 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. It reported that about half these Ukrainian nationals held passports from the DNR or the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” an area of the Luhansk region controlled by Russian-affiliated armed groups and currently occupied by Russia (LNR is used in this report as a reference to this area, not as recognition of any claims to sovereignty).

Although the total number of Ukrainian civilians transferred to Russia – either voluntarily or involuntarily – remains unclear, many were transported to Russia in organized mass transfers, even though they were hoping to go to Ukrainian-controlled territory, in a manner and context that renders them illegal forcible transfers.

Russian and Russian-affiliated officials organized transport to Russia and 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. One woman from Mariupol who was transferred to Russia said: “Of course 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.” Other civilians said that military or other personnel at checkpoints instructed Ukrainian citizens fleeing hostilities to go to Russia or the DNR. Military personnel who rounded up civilians in occupied territories told them the same, although in some cases, Russian forces allowed people to proceed to Ukrainian-held territory. [Continue reading…]