Human Rights Watch issued a report Thursday documenting the forcible transfer of Ukrainian citizens to Russia and Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, which HRW says constitutes war crimes and potential crimes against humanity.
The 71-page report, We Had No Choice: “Filtration” and the Crime of Forcibly Transferring Ukrainian Civilians to Russia, includes interviews with 18 people who went to Russia — 15 from the Mariupol area, one from Donetsk and two from the Kharkiv region. It said Russian and Russian-affiliated authorities also subjected thousands of Ukrainians to a form of compulsory, punitive and abusive security screening called filtration.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at HRW, discussed the organization’s work in Ukraine with Natalya Churikova of VOA’s Ukrainian Service in an interview Wednesday.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: Who did you interview for this report? Were they Ukrainians in Russia?
Denber: So, the people who we interviewed were Ukrainians, Ukrainian citizens who had been forcibly transferred to Russia. So, about the time when we spoke to them, they were no longer in Russia. They had already made it out of Russia, for the most part. They were already in the countries of the European Union or Georgia.
VOA: How do you define forced deportation?
Denber: I think this is a really important question because … a forced transfer is a war crime and a potential crime against humanity. In order for it to apply in a situation like in Ukraine, where it’s an armed conflict and one side is bringing people to the opposite side or to other occupied areas, for the term, force transfer, to be applicable, you don’t have to actually put a gun to somebody’s head, or you don’t have to drag them in handcuffs.
What we documented was how Russian authorities, Russian forces, or forces that were affiliated with Russia, pretty much just made clear to Ukrainians to whom they were offering evacuation on a bus that they had no other choice. And that’s, in fact, the title of the report.
They pretty much told them they had no other choice, that they had to … get on this bus. Sometimes they said, “Well if you stay, it’ll be so much worse for you. You’re not going to survive.” Or sometimes they didn’t say anything at all. In some cases, they didn’t tell people where they were taking off to. In other cases, these forces rounded people up from shelters, from the streets, sometimes also from house-to-house searches, and put them on buses to so-called DNR, [Donetsk People’s Republic] and then onward to the Russian border.
VOA: What would be the legal way for Russia to deal with this situation? That they are in a state of war, and they really want the population to be safe?
Denber: The legal way would be to ensure that there was transportation offered to Ukrainian-held areas. Their responsibility was to make that available, because it wasn’t impossible. People who were fleeing either the Mariupol area, or even people who had been through filtration, if they had access to their own transportation, if they had their own car, or if they had enough money to hire a car, they were able to drive away and drive to Ukrainian-held areas. It’s just that if you didn’t have the money, you had no other choice [but] to get on a bus. And that’s the definition of forced transfer.
VOA: What about the filtration camps and the separation of families? We know that families are trying to escape together.
Denber: I think that almost everyone we talked to who went through filtration felt that they were in a very coerced situation. Some people felt like they were hostages. Some people felt like they were being accused of a crime. So, this was a very abusive process that had no legal framework whatsoever. Look, the Russian authorities are entitled to set up a screening process for people who are voluntarily going to Russia. That’s not what the case was here. And second of all, even if they’re setting up a screening process for security reasons for people who are voluntarily going to Russia, there are certain boundaries and limits that they need to observe.
There is nothing that could justify the scope of the screening that they were undertaking … by getting people’s biometric data. That’s hugely invasive, and it’s also consistent with what Russia is doing domestically. They’re using all kinds of mechanisms in order to scrape people’s biometric data with the purpose of controlling them. …
[Also,] they’re asking their opinions about the war. Their opinions about the military. Their opinions about Putin. Why is that? There is no real justification for that other than to intimidate people. And then they were invasively looking into people’s telephones and scraping everything they could. We don’t know what’s happened to that data.
VOA: In the report, you say that some of the civilians who were detained from the Mariupol area who were suspected of sympathizing with this battalion were put in the camp where Ukrainian prisoners of war were recently killed. Do you have any data about this?
Denber: So, all of the information that we got, we got from interviewing people — and quite detailed interviews. We interviewed many people who had been through the filtration process. We specifically asked people about what happened to people who flunked the filtration process, who the Russian or Russian-affiliated forces detained after they finished the gathering of data and the interviews, then the interrogations. And we understand that people told us that they have heard that people were taken to various other locations, including what their fate was after that. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to follow up on those things.
We did get details of one case of a man who was held because he flunked the filtration process, and he was eventually released. He didn’t want to talk about [his] experience, and he also talked about his son who was picked up in Mariupol and held for several weeks. He was suspected of being affiliated with the Ukrainian military, and … it was pretty clear that he was quite badly beaten.
VOA: Ukrainian authorities say almost 6,000 Ukrainian children are being deported to Russia, and some of them are being put up for adoption. Have you come across any of these cases?
Denber: In our report, we documented only one case of a forced transfer of children. And that was, of course, [the] transfer of 17 children who had been in an institution in Mariupol, and they were forcibly transferred. Somebody who ran the institution had a plan to get them out of Mariupol, and he was intercepted by some DNR person who took the children to the DNR. And that was it. We didn’t document any other cases other than that, but that doesn’t mean that those cases don’t exist.
VOA: We asked the U.N. refugee agency about their numbers, and they said the Russian Federation gives them the numbers, and they put them up for the public in their portal, and that Russia has become the biggest country to receive Ukrainian refugees. They said they didn’t have the means to check the numbers independently. Would your report be a basis for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to change the definition on the status of the Ukrainians in the Russian Federation?
Denber: That’s an excellent question. Our report certainly raises questions about how to define the people who have crossed the Ukrainian border into Russia. Look, we can’t say how many people were forcibly transferred into Russia. We don’t know. But we do know that large numbers of people were, because there were busloads and busloads and busloads of people. We do know that people were rounded up en masse and put on buses in this manner that is coercive. … It’s very hard to say exactly how many people were displaced from Ukraine and who ended up in Russia. It’s very hard to say how many of those people who ended up in Russia are genuinely refugees. How many of them are forcibly transferred. How many of them went voluntarily to Russia. It’s a very difficult numbers game.
VOA: Can Ukraine use your report as evidence in the International Court of Justice, where it has sued Russia for human rights violations?
Denber: I hope that anybody who is interested in justice will use our report as evidence of the crime of forced transfers. … We documented a number of cases, and I very much hope that our report is used by anybody who’s looking for justice.
VOA: In which case does forced deportation represent a crime against humanity?
Denber: It would have to do with the scale and the numbers. I think once we see who actually was forcibly transferred, we could talk about whether it was systematic, and whether it was combined with other crimes.
VOA: What would be the benchmark?
Denber: I really couldn’t say. I think that’s something the court would have to determine.