Deported Ukrainians Seek Justice
Evidence is mounting that hundreds of thousands of citizens have been forcibly sent to Russia from the east and south of Ukraine.
When Russian soldiers entered the fire station in Mariupol on March 15, there were about 400 people crammed into its basement sheltering from the incessant bombing of the port city in southeast Ukraine.
Sleep-deprived, hungry and thirsty, they were told to get up and get out.
“There were buses with Russian plates and Chechen drivers,” recalled Tamara, 42, who had been among those seeking shelter there. “They took us first to Volodarsk and then to Taganrog [in southwest Russia]. We had no choice. At the Russian border, a Russian customs officer interrogated all Ukrainians, checked our phones, bags and passports. After crossing the border, we were taken to a distribution camp.”
Ukrainians were allowed to stay in the camp for only one night, before being sent to other Russian cities further east. Tamara contacted a friend in Moscow who put her up and bought her ticket to Frankfurt.
Now safe, she is preparing a lawsuit to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHtR), with the support of the Kyiv-based We Are From Ukraine NGO, which provides legal assistance for Ukrainian victims of war crimes.
Evidence is mounting that Russia has been deporting hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from areas it controls in the east and the south of the country to Russia. Legal experts argue that this constitutes a war crime, and are exploring ways to find justice for those affected.
“Ukrainian civilians should not be left with no choice but to go to Russia. And no one should be forced to undergo an abusive screening process to reach safety,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch.
In its recent report We Had No Choice: Filtration and the War Crime of Forcibly Transferring Ukrainian Civilians to Russia, HRW noted that this was a serious violation that constituted war crimes and potential crimes against humanity.
Russian and Russian-affiliated authorities also subjected thousands of Ukrainian citizens to a form of compulsory, punitive, and abusive security screening they termed filtration.
“A vital circumstance of deportation is the deprivation of liberty and losing freedom of choice where to go,” Serghiy Zayets, a Kyiv-based lawyer specialising in ECtHR lawsuits, told IWPR.
He noted that prosecution for war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC), have no time limits, but applications for human rights violations to the ECtHR must be submitted within four months of the individual arriving to a safe location. If that time expires, a lawyer can file a complaint to the UN human rights committee.
“Its rulings, however, are softer compared to those of the courts,” Zayets said.
There are no accurate statistics as to the scale of the deportations.
“It is hard to tell how many Ukrainians have ended up in Russia,” Alena Lunova, advocacy director at the Kyiv-based ZMINA human rights centre told IWPR.
According to the US State Department, the number ranges between 900,000 to 1.6 million, including 260,000 children. On July 13 Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky said the number could be as high as two million. In late July, the Russian TASS news agency reported that over 2.8 million Ukrainians had entered the Russian Federation from Ukraine, including 448,000 children.
“Ukrainians fled to Russia as a result of deportations, but also due to lack of alternatives or in transit. Russia has never published any data on how many people transited through it so we don’t know how many people stayed on Russia’s territory after entering it,” Lunova continued.
Oleksandra Steshenko, legal coordinator of We Are From Ukraine, said that gathering evidence for the ECtHR could be a way to investigate the deportation process, capture international attention and provide evidence of war crimes in Ukraine committed by Russian forces. However, she noted that years can pass before cases are heard by the court.
Legal practitioners underline that national lawsuits are also vital. Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies can begin investigating a war crime, especially with physical evidence such as photo, video or written testimonies. The prosecutor general has created an ad-hoc website for war crimes where these facts can be recorded.
“Anyone who was deported or illegally displaced from Ukraine’s territory can apply to any Ukrainian law enforcement agency by any form of communication; after that, the crime circumstances will be investigated and legally assessed,” the office of the prosecutor general told IWPR in a statement.
However, this is not easy.
“We have [only a] few deportation cases because the deported [persons] cannot ask for legal aid in Ukraine. They didn’t have access to information and there are people whose passports were taken away,” Steshenko explained.
RUSSIA’S TEMPORARY CAMPS
Once in Russia, Ukrainians are placed in Temporary Accommodation Points (TAPs). There is no official data on their number or their location.
In May, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that there were 523 operating across 53 regions and housing 34,140 people, including 11,790 children. In the Rostov region alone, 66 centres were set up.
British news outlet The-i analysed local Russian reports and identified 66 centres in sanatoriums and former children's camps across the country, stretching 5,500 miles to the easternmost region of Kamchatka.
Donetsk and Luhansk regions are the main starting point, but rights groups indicated that at the beginning of the invasion people were forcibly taken from Kyiv, Chernihiv and Kharkiv regions to Russian cities like Bryask or Kursk.
According to the prosecutor general’s office, “A pre-trial investigation found deportation cases of Ukrainian citizens to the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus from the temporarily occupied territories in Donetsk and Luhansk regions and through the cities with so-called filtration camps – Donetsk, Snizhne, Makiivka, Torez, Shakhtarsk, Khartsyzk, Novoazovsk, Berdyansk cities and Nikolske, Bezimenne, Yuriivka villages. Then the citizens are transported to Russia’s territory.”
The prosecutor general is investigating some cases of civilians deported in March. On March 11, a group of people were forcibly taken from Borodyanka in the Kyiv region to Homel, in southeastern Belarus. On March 30, residents of Verkhniy Saltiv, a village in Kharkiv region, were forcibly placed on school buses with Russian flags and the infamous Z symbol of the Russian invasion, and transported across the border. There were largely women and children.
Witnesses reported Russian forces diverting evacuation buses heading to Ukraine-controlled territories at gun-point.
"Volunteers who help Ukrainians in Russia told us a story of Russian soldiers grabbing a young woman, putting into a tank and driving through the Russian border,” Lunova said.
Women and children make up the bulk of those heading to Russia, with men fearing abuse in the filtration points as Russians inspect them for signs of fighting.
In Russia, Ukrainians need to get a Russian passport in order to apply for work permits, pensions or benefits. Russia does not have any temporary protection policy for refugees similar to the one implemented by the European Union in April, which allows Ukrainians to access jobs, housing, education and healthcare.
In a written statement to IWPR, the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office emphasised that the deportations “violate international humanitarian law, particularly Article 49 of the 1949 Geneva convention on the protection of the civilian population in time of war and Article 85 of the additional protocol to the Geneva conventions”.
The convention prohibits mass forcible transfers of civilians to the territory of the occupying power, classifying it as a war crime.
The office of the prosecutor general continued, “[In addition they] violate the laws and customs of war according to Article 438 of Ukraine’s criminal code, as qualified by investigators and prosecutors. Such crimes may also be subject to investigation by the International Criminal Court.”
This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).