“We Had No Choice”
“Filtration” and the Crime of Forcibly Transferring Ukrainian Civilians to Russia
A bus full of Ukrainians being transferred to Taganrog, Russia from the “DNR,” February 2022. © 2022 ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP via Getty Images
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.
Some people told Human Rights Watch they went to Russia voluntarily, including men wanting to avoid the travel restrictions under Ukraine’s martial law, which with limited exceptions, does not allow men ages 18 to 60 to leave the country.
Mariupol residents who had the financial means to organize their own private transportation, rather than rely on Russian organized evacuation buses, were able to travel to Ukrainian-controlled territory, sometimes after completing the filtration process, while others managed to leave the city to Ukrainian-controlled territory without going through the process.
Many traveled through areas of heavy fighting and ongoing shelling, along streets littered with dead bodies and burnt-out buildings, to escape Mariupol. They then passed through numerous checkpoints manned by Russian or Russian-affiliated forces, where they were often repeatedly questioned and searched, before finally reaching Zaporizhzhia in Ukrainian-controlled territory, where volunteers and aid groups have been providing humanitarian assistance and other support for new arrivals.
Residents from some villages and a city in the eastern Kharkiv region, bordering Russia, including the villages of Lyptsi, Ruska Lozova, and Ternova, were also forcibly transferred to Russia, but did not undergo filtration in Russian-occupied areas. A 70-year-old man from Ruska Lozova described what Russian forces warned him of in their attempt to convince him to leave his home: “You lived under us and so if the Ukrainian army comes, they will punish you,” he said the Russian forces told him. “You will be executed.” While he did not give in, hundreds of families from the village, including his neighbor, did leave for Russia.
At the Russian border, most Ukrainians went through another screening process before being sent to different parts of Russia, where many are now cut off from their families and friends, fearful and uncertain about what lies ahead, according to their family members and volunteers assisting Ukrainians who are in Russia but want to leave.
While in Russia, some interviewees were pressured to sign, and witnessed other people signing, documents stating that they had witnessed war crimes by Ukrainian forces. Some of those who had access to smartphones and social media networks were able to connect with activists who helped facilitate their transport out of Russia through Estonia, Latvia, or Georgia. Once they made it to the border, though, some had difficulties crossing from Russia because they lacked the proper identification documents, having left them behind in Ukraine when fleeing the shelling and other violence.
The report also documents the filtration or security screening process that DNR officials and Russian authorities have used to capture vast of amounts of personal data about Ukrainian civilians, including their biometrics. While Russia may have legitimate grounds to conduct security screening on individuals voluntarily seeking to enter Russian territory, the filtration process in its scope and the systemic manner in which Russian forces and authorities organized and forced Ukrainian civilians to undergo it, is punitive and abusive. It is a mass illegal data collection exercise being carried out by Russian and Russian-affiliated forces outside of the territory of Russia, targeting non-Russians, with no legal underpinnings. It involves a clear violation of the right to privacy and could put those subject to it at risk of being targeted or suffering other abuses for years to come. For example, in Mariupol, Russian and Russian-affiliated forces rounded up civilians they suspected of having ties to the Ukrainian military and sent them for filtration. This became more commonplace as Russia sought to entrench control in areas it occupies in southern Ukraine. In some cases, Ukrainian civilians understood that if they were to be allowed safe passage from areas of active hostilities or even to move around on roads controlled by Russian and Russian-affiliated forces, they had to undergo a filtration or screening process.
In the villages of Bezimenne and Kozatske in the DNR, almost 200 people were effectively interned after they completed the filtration process and had received “filtration receipts,” indicating that they had successfully completed the process. For over 40 days, DNR personnel refused to return their passports and prevented them from leaving the village, where they sheltered in local schools or a cultural center in unsanitary conditions with meager food rations.
The report notes that individuals who “failed” the filtration process in the DNR, apparently due to their suspected ties to the Ukrainian military or to nationalist groups, were detained in the DNR. Some of those detained, whose whereabouts and fate are unknown, are presumed forcibly disappeared according to family members. While this report cannot document their fate beyond that, there are serious grounds for concern that these individuals are at risk of grave harm, including torture or other ill-treatment; in particular, the lives of , those forcibly disappeared may be at risk.
The practices documented in this report are distinct from the arbitrary detention of Ukrainian civilians by Russian and Russian-affiliated forces and their subsequent unlawful transfer to pre-trial detention centers and penal colonies in Russia. Human Rights Watch has documented this practice in other publications.
This report is based on Human Rights Watch interviews with 18 people who went to Russia—15 from the Mariupol area, 1 from Donetsk, and 2 from the Kharkiv region —10 of whom also underwent the filtration process. Human Rights Watch interviewed another 8 people who went through the filtration process in the DNR but were able to continue on to Ukrainian-controlled areas and avoided being transferred to Russia.
The report is also based on interviews with 21 Mariupol and Kharkiv residents whose family members and friends were transferred to Russia, most of whom remained in Russia as far as the interviewees knew. Human Rights Watch also interviewed eight lawyers and activists in Russia and Europe who have been helping newly arrived Ukrainians leave Russia.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with dozens of civilians from the Mariupol area who were able to escape the war zone to Ukrainian-controlled territory without undergoing filtration. We spoke with them to gather information about the international humanitarian law violations in Mariupol, including indiscriminate bombing and shelling, and access to food, water, and other humanitarian needs in the city, as well as about their experiences fleeing the city to safety.
Most of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch where Ukrainians from the Mariupol and Kharkiv areas were transported to Russia amount to forcible transfers. 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 where 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 as being on humanitarian grounds, if the humanitarian crisis triggering the displacement is itself the result of unlawful activity by the occupying power.
In at least five cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the interviewees’ consent to be transferred may be genuine, as they said they wanted to go to Russia in order to travel onwards to Europe after. Such cases may not constitute forcible transfers.
Russian and Russian-affiliated forces in all parts of Ukraine that they now occupy should ensure that civilians can leave in safety to Ukrainian-controlled territory if they choose, regardless of whether they have private vehicles to flee in. They should ensure that people who board buses heading to Russia are fully informed about where the buses are going and are given options if they do not want to travel to Russia. They should stop all forms of pressure on Ukrainian citizens to go to Russia and should facilitate the return to Ukraine of all Ukrainian civilians who wish to do so.
While Russian authorities can conduct essential security screenings of those seeking to enter Russia, they should halt all ongoing biometric data collection and retention processes. Russian authorities should only ever collect biometric data where lawful, proportionate, and necessary to do so, and should inform data subjects of why their data is being collected, how it will be used, and how long it will be held for.
To help ensure that the perpetrators of grave violations of the laws of war in Ukraine, including forced transfers, and other serious abuses against civilians such as filtration, are investigated and brought to justice, Ukraine should ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which it signed in 2000.
(c) Human Rights Watch