14.09.22 Review

The Battle for People: forcible removal of Ukrainians to Russian territory should be classified as deportation and war сrimes, Human Rights Watch says

On the 7th of September, the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Russia of committing war crimes off the battlefield. The accusation was based on a report prepared by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on the involuntary transfer of Ukrainian citizens to the territory of the Russian Federation. This process is part of a large-scale “battle for people” that is currently taking place on the territory of Ukraine: Russia has been preventing people fleeing occupied territories to regions under control of the Ukrainian army, and referring to this as “a humanitarian operation”. It should be noted that Russia has created a network of filtration spots and camps; most of the HRW report is about the “filtration” procedures taking place there, which prove that Ukrainians entering Russia are doing so involuntarily. This can be classified as deportation, or, in other words, a war crime against the civilian population.

The Russian authorities have been insisting that they are carrying out a humanitarian operation to rescue people who are under threat (“Channel One” has been churning out documentaries on the subject), but Ukraine and the United States consider the deportation of Ukrainians to Russian territory a war crime. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (which neither Russia nor Ukraine have ratified) recognizes the forced displacement of civilians as a crime, and the removal of children falls under the direct definition of genocide, according to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The HRW report explains that “unlike combatants, who, when captured, receive the status of prisoners of war and can be taken to enemy territory, the civilian population, under international humanitarian law or the laws of war, cannot be subjected to forced displacement. Forced displacement of civilians may be recognized as a war crime or a crime against humanity, and those responsible may be prosecuted.”

More than 7 million people have left Ukraine since February 2022 according to estimates of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Almost 2.5 million of them ended up in Russia. According to the HRW report, most of them were brought to the Russian Federation by force or fraudulently. They were interrogated, humiliated and beaten at the border. After arriving in Russia or territories under its control, many of them are planning to return to Ukraine or seek asylum in European countries. 

The HRW report is based on interviews with 110 Ukrainians and volunteers (data was collected from late March to early June) and summarises what the journey from Ukraine to Russia looks like. People are detained on the streets of cities under control of the Russian army, subject to long weeks and even months of isolation, humiliated (a mandatory part of obtaining permission to cross the border). Then comes the filtration itself. Many have to endure day-long queues, and then become victims of physical torture, as well as “moral lessons”, during which they are “taught” how to speak and think correctly about the events in Ukraine. The report systemises all the facts, many of which have already been described in various other media reports and investigations.

The report says that 200,000 children were forcibly taken from Ukraine to Russia. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has already raised the issue of minors being involuntarily displaced from Ukraine and forcibly adopted into Russian families. The Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner was subject to personal sanctions as a result. 

What forces Ukrainians to go to Russia? Both Human Rights Watch and testimonies published in the media describe how Ukrainians fear for their lives, don’t have any choice in the matter and are pressured by the Russian military. Once in Russia, the majority of Ukrainians attempt to return to territories under Ukrainian control, or leave for Georgia, Finland, Poland, Estonia and other European countries. People lacking the means and social connections to leave are forced to stay in Russia, where they are “redirected” to different cities, including as far as Vladivostok. In August BBC journalists estimated that Russian regions had already spent more than 10 billion rubles on accommodating Ukrainian refugees. These funds were taken from the federal budget. 

According to the report, Russia has set up extensive infrastructure for subjecting Ukrainian citizens to filtration. The Conflict Observatory project, created by the US State Department to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine, supports this conclusion by analysing geodata to describe the filtration process.  

Russia itself recognizes the filtration procedures only indirectly. The HRW report quotes a statement released in May by the “Ministry of Internal Affairs of the DPR”: “filtration activities” are carried out in order to “prevent persons associated with the Ukrainian military, law enforcement and security services, nationalist battalions, sabotage and reconnaissance groups from entering the republic”.