When Russian forces took control of Nataliya’s village outside Kharkiv, on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they offered bus rides to residents seeking to evacuate the area but with a catch: They could only go to Russia. Those hoping to escape to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which remained under Ukrainian control, were not allowed to leave.
For months, Nataliya stayed behind, even as some neighbors chose to go to Russia as the conflict escalated. Then last May, Russian forces occupying the village told residents that a corridor had been opened to Ukrainian-controlled territory. Nataliya and others boarded a bus that they were told was headed to Kharkiv. But when the bus stopped, she realized they were in Shebekino, a city just across the border.
“I suddenly realized that we were in Russia,” Nataliya told human rights investigators. “We didn’t even go through a border crossing.”
Over the next days, Nataliya and others from her village were taken to a motorsport complex turned makeshift transit camp for thousands of Ukrainians, she told investigators. Russian officials photographed her, took her fingerprints, and made her fill out an immigration form. After a few days sleeping in tents, most people boarded buses to other destinations in Russia, but Nataliya managed to take a train to Moscow, then traveled to Poland and back into Ukraine, eventually reaching Kharkiv.
Nataliya’s ordeal is one of several documented in a Human Rights Watch report published Thursday, which paints the most detailed picture yet of so-called filtration and forcible transfers of Ukrainians by Russian forces. Allegations that thousands of Ukrainians seeking to flee the fighting were forced to undergo interrogations and an invasive screening process, and that many were deceived or pressured into moving to Russian-controlled territory or across the border into the Russian federation itself, have emerged consistently over the last several months. But access to people subjected to forced screenings and transfers has been a challenge, making it difficult for investigators to understand their scope and scale. In April, Russian authorities shut down Human Rights Watch’s office in the country along with those of a dozen other human rights organizations, making it impossible for the group to investigate alleged abuses from within Russia.
In the new report, based on dozens of interviews, including 18 with people who traveled to Russia and were ultimately able to leave, Human Rights Watch concludes that an unknown number of Ukrainians were transported to Russia in “organized mass transfers” conducted in a manner and context that rendered them illegal forcible transfers — a war crime and potential crime against humanity. Forcible transfers include cases 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,” the rights group wrote.
“When Russian forces transfer Ukrainian civilians from areas of active hostilities to areas of Ukraine under Russian occupation or to the Russian Federation, under the guise of evacuations, they are not merely removing civilians from the hazards of war,” the report concluded. “They are implementing policy ambitions articulated by Russia’s leadership in the lead up to and during the current conflict.”
Russian and Ukrainian officials have each pointed to the movement of tens of thousands of Ukrainians across the border as supporting evidence for their narratives about the conflict, but observers argue that the full picture is more complex and nuanced. Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, said earlier this summer that 1.2 million Ukrainians had been forcibly taken to Russia, including 240,000 children. Russian officials, for their part, claimed that over 2.8 million Ukrainians had entered the Russian federation from Ukraine, including 448,000 children, at least half of which came from areas of Ukraine that had been under Russian control since 2014. The Ukrainian and Russian governments did not respond to requests for comment from The Intercept.
While Human Rights Watch documents the forcible transfer of several people, the group couldn’t determine how many Ukrainians have been forced into Russia that way, and it warned against drawing generalized conclusions about the movement of people amid ongoing conflict. Some Ukrainians felt they had no choice but to go to Russia, which they saw as the only way to escape relentless shelling — and a decision made under such conditions, Human Rights Watch notes, amounts to forcible transfer. While in Russia, some of the people transferred there were pressured to sign declarations stating that they had witnessed war crimes by Ukrainian forces, the group added.
But many Ukrainians also made the journey to Russia or Russian-controlled territory voluntarily, either because they held pro-Russian views, had family ties in Russia, or as a way to travel on to other destinations after the Ukrainian government imposed martial law, forbidding most adult males from leaving the country.
“One really needs to be very careful in determining in each case whether a forcible transfer has occurred, and one cannot generalize and say, ‘OK, the Russians are saying it’s 2 million Ukrainians so we then say, 2 million Ukrainians have been forcibly transferred to Russia,’” Belkis Wille, the report’s lead researcher, told The Intercept. “There are some Ukrainians who have chosen to go to Russia, including because they wanted to transit on to Europe. … Even if we had the numbers on how many people went to Russia, that doesn’t mean that that many people were forcibly transferred.”
Human Rights Watch also noted that because reaching transferred Ukrainians remains a challenge, and because many were too fearful to speak to investigators, its report was based almost exclusively on interviews with those with access to social media or to a network of activists who helped them eventually leave Russia. “Their experiences are not necessarily representative of the many other Ukrainians who are still in Russia, who neither went there or remain there by choice,” the group wrote, calling for further research “to understand the full range of abuses that forcibly transferred Ukrainians in Russia may have experienced and be experiencing.”
According to the report, most of those who were forcibly transferred to Russia or Russian-controlled territory came from the region around Kharkiv and from the city of Mariupol, which was under siege for 10 weeks before falling under Russian control in May. As several Ukrainian government attempts to evacuate civilians from Mariupol to Ukrainian-controlled territory failed throughout the siege, thousands of residents attempted to leave the destroyed city, escaping at times on foot, under heavy shelling, through streets filled with dead bodies. Many of these civilians were made to believe that in order to be allowed passage out of areas with active hostilities they had to submit to a “filtration” process by Russian forces, which included surrendering their phones and passports, having their biometrics recorded, and undergoing body searches and interrogations about their jobs and political views.
Those with access to private vehicles were often able to skirt the process, Human Rights Watch noted. But thousands of those who were reliant on evacuation buses to flee the violence or who were made to believe that they needed to show filtration “receipts” in order to move through Russian-controlled areas spent days and in some cases weeks in schools, community centers, tents, or vehicles waiting for clearance, often in squalid conditions and with little food. Those who failed the screening because of suspected ties to the Ukrainian military or nationalist groups were detained in Russian-controlled territory and the whereabouts of several remain unknown, according to family members interviewed by Human Rights Watch. The group warned that they may be at risk of torture and enforced disappearance.
Wille, the Human Rights Watch researcher, noted that the mass biometric data collection happening as part of the filtration process was especially concerning.
“It fits into a much bigger thing going on in Russia,” she told The Intercept, noting that Human Rights Watch has documented widespread efforts by Russian authorities to build biometric databases for surveillance and monitoring. “They’re trying to, à la Xinjiang, create something quite similar and comprehensive in Russia. And I think this gives them a big kind of ground for experimentation. … I think the consequences are significant because we don’t know yet what they’re going to be.”
Those who spoke to Human Rights Watch noted their fear and helplessness as Russian soldiers made them board buses and either lied to them or refused to disclose their destination. They described being held in filtration centers that were overcrowded and filthy.
“We felt like hostages,” said a man who was detained while walking in Mariopul to check on his grandmother and was held for two weeks in a schoolhouse in Russian-controlled territory. “We were afraid they had some dodgy plans for us.”
Another man, who spent 40 days interned in a village outside Mariupol, described inedible food and sanitary conditions that made many people sick. “But more than anything, it was the uncertainty,” he said. “We kept asking, ‘Why keep us there? When will we get the passports back?’ But [the Donetsk People’s Republic authorities] would not tell us anything coherent.”
Both “filtration” and the mass transfer of people have precedents in Russian and Soviet history, though the practices have also been widespread elsewhere. “When we talk about filtration, we should not really attribute it only to Russia,” Alexander Statiev, a history professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, told The Intercept. “The Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, for instance, it was a filtration center. The Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, it was also a screening facility.”
Soviet officials established filtration camps during World War II, targeting soldiers who had found themselves in German-controlled areas, to identify suspected defectors and collaborators. “Because of this Stalinist, permanent suspicion of spies and enemy agents, they had to undertake this filtration, this screening process,” said Statiev. Soon, the practice was extended to several million civilians who had been living in German territory.
Population transfers, often along ethnic lines, were also commonplace in Soviet Russia, added Statiev, who pointed to the deportation of 170,000 ethnic Koreans, suspected of sympathizing with the Japanese, from the Soviet Union’s far east to Central Asia.
More recently, filtration camps were a defining feature of the Chechen wars, which started in the 1990s. Some 200,000 Chechens, a fifth of the population, passed through the camps, where they were subjected to widespread and well-documented human rights abuses. “Filtration is a standard counterinsurgency procedure … but if a rebellion is popular — and in Chechnya it was popular — a lot of people support the rebels,” said Statiev, noting that there is no evidence that the filtration currently underway in Ukraine is comparable in terms of scale and treatment. “Russia did it on a very large scale in Chechnya, on a very large scale during the Second World War, but the scale of the current formulation is not really clear.”
The Russian government’s goal when encouraging or forcing Ukrainians to move to Russia is also unclear. Over the last several years, Russian officials dealing with a population decline have been trying to lure citizens of former Soviet countries to regions of the federation facing labor shortages, even though promises of support to those who agree to go often fall short. While some Ukrainians have chosen to move to Russia in the aftermath of their country’s invasion, Russian officials failed to articulate a vision for how the war and the destruction it wrought would serve their ultimate goals.
“I don’t think Russians are clear themselves. The trouble is that they started the war without rationally formulating the end game,” said Statiev. “We don’t really know what they would do with all those people. A great deal of them hate Russia as a state, not so much the people, but Russia as a state. And to find within your state so many people who hate you — what is the point?”