Russian forces have been forcibly transferring Ukrainian civilians, including those fleeing hostilities, to areas under their control, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on Thursday.
Forced transfers “are a serious violation of the laws of war amounting to a war crimes and a potential crime against humanity,” the non-governmental organization said.
HRW interviewed 54 people who went to Russia or knew people who did. Some of them were also helping Ukrainians trying to leave Russia after Moscow’s forces invaded Ukraine at the end of February.
Many of the people forcibly transferred were fleeing the city of Mariupol, a port that suffered a devastating siege and heavy shelling before being seized by Russian troops.
Others were from the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine.
“Of course, we would have used the opportunity to go to Ukraine if we could have,” one woman transferred from Mariupol told HRW.
“But we had no choice, no possibility to go” to Ukrainian-held territories, she said.
“Ukrainian civilians should not be left with no choice but to go to Russia,” Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at HRW and co-author of the report, said.
On the way, many were subjected to a form of compulsory security screening called “filtration” that included the collection of biometric data and fingerprints, body searches, and searches for personal belongings, according to the report.
“No-one should be forced to undergo an abusive screening process to reach safety,” Wille said.
A man from Mariupol told HRW that, after being detained by Russian troops, he and dozens of Mariupol residents were held in a village schoolhouse for two weeks under filthy conditions, before undergoing filtration.
“We felt like hostages,” he told HRW.
The filtration process — in its scope and the systemic manner targeting Ukrainian citizen — is “punitive and abusive,” according to HRW.
It has “no legal underpinning” and is a “clear violation of the right to privacy,” according to the NGO.
HRW sent its findings and a summary of questions to the Russian authorities on July 5 but received no response.
“Herding people further into Russian-occupied areas and onward to Russia without consent should immediately stop,” Wille said.