A leading international human rights group is accusing Russia of committing war crimes over its policy of ordering Ukrainian civilians from their homes and sending them to Russian-controlled areas in Ukraine or Russia itself.
The allegations are in a just-released report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that documents what the group says are the forcible transfer of Ukrainian civilians, including those fleeing hostilities following Russia‘s invasion of its southern neighbor in February.
“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,” Belkis Wille, co-author of the report, said in a statement.
The conflict has created millions of Ukrainian refugees across Europe and displaced civilians inside the country. Russia and pro-Moscow separatist groups now control an extensive crescent of territory in Ukraine‘s south and east, and the Kremlin has already made moves to forcibly annex some Ukrainian towns into Russia itself.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 54 people sent to Russia or who had family or friends forced into Moscow’s “filtration” program. Russian officials told some to “forget about” fleeing to territory still controlled by the Ukrainian government based in Kyiv.
“Of course, we would have used the opportunity to go to Ukraine if we could have, for sure,” a woman from Mariupol on the Sea of Azov told HRW researchers. “But, we had no choice — no possibility to go there.”
The Biden administration has called out the Kremlin on the policy as inhumane. U.S. intelligence sources and private researchers say there are at least 21 “filtration centers” in eastern Ukraine and across the border in Russia to take in Ukrainian citizens caught up in the fighting. Russia‘s Defense Ministry has described the centers as part of a humanitarian and security mission, designed in part to stop Ukrainian nationalists from “infiltrating” Russia disguised as refugees.
The Russian Embassy in Washington said in July that U.S. allegations were an attempt to foment “Russophobia” and vilify Russian armed forces, the Reuters news agency reported.
Human Rights Watch said in the report there was no legal basis for Russia’s filtration process, both in scope and in the hardships Ukrainian civilians were forced to endure.
The report acknowledges that some in the captured lands went to settle in Russia voluntarily, but most used the relocation as a transit route to their eventual destination in the European Union. Russian media reports in mid-August said more than 3.4 million Ukrainians entered the Russian Federation from Ukraine, including at least 555,000 children, HRW researchers said.
“Herding people further into Russian-occupied areas and onward to Russia without consent should immediately stop,” Ms. 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.”