Forced Removal or Evacuation? Thousands of Civilians Were Moved from Ukraine to Russia, Says Report

Nearly two million Ukraine civilians have been moved to Russia since the start of the war in February 2022, say Ukrainian and Russian officials. Ukrainian officials have accused the Kremlin of forcibly deporting civilians, while Russia claims its part of an evacuation effort to save lives.

Fresh evidence from months-long investigation into the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have gone missing since the war began suggests probable violations of international law and of possible war crimes. This includes widespread illegal transfer of civilians and the forcible disappearance of them into prisons in Russia and hostage-taking.

There may be three main organized routes by which civilians are transferred to prisons in Russia, as per evidence from victims themselves, family members of the missing, and international rights groups. Its believed Ukrainians have been taken from the northwest parts of the country via Belarus, or from the northeast to transitional military camp along the border, or through annexed Crimea in the south.

A Victim Tells All

An investigation by The Independent, a UK newspaper, reveals that residents in occupied Ukrainian towns were told by Russian soldiers that civilians were being deliberately rounded up as leverage in future prisoner exchanges.

Andriy, father of two who has returned, said the Russian soldiers ordered his father-in-law and other Ukrainians to get into the car. They are made to put bags over their heads and handcuffed. The civilians were loaded into a truck from Trostyanets, Andriy revealed.

He and his father-in-law were beaten and interrogated, as well as subjected to mock executions. They were moved between various detention centers, including one in Shebekino – a Russian town which is close to the border.

Andriy said he was held with captured soldiers from Snake Island and eventually kept in a prison in Stary Oskol with civilians who had been taken from Sumy, Kharkiv and Kyiv. He disclosed that they were almost killed when one soldier accused them of being members of the military. They were shot twice next to their heads.

Andriy tasted sweet freedom from the terrifying ordeal when he was inexplicably included in a prisoner swap in mid-April. However, his father-in-law remains behind bars.

Kyiv attack

Human Rights Watch report

The Human Rights Watch had documented the detention of nine civilian men by Russian forces while they occupied Ukraine's besieged Kyiv region. The organization tracked their apparent transfer to detention facilities in Russia's Kursk and Bryansk regions when the forces rotated out or withdrew. Russian violations against the detainees, as per Human Rights Watch, include possible unlawful confinement and hostage-taking, unlawful transfer or deportation, and enforced disappearances. These may amount or involve multiple war crimes.

Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the Russian forces forcefully transferred the civilians to Russia, forcibly disappeared them, and continue to hold them.

She said Russia has not provided information or access to their families. Lokshina called the Russian authorities to immediately release and return all Ukrainian civilians detained in Russia. Moscow must ensure that everyone in their custody who was detained in or from Ukraine, combatant, or civilian, is officially registered with the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC).

Need to urgently investigation

Allan Hogarth, an executive at Amnesty International, says Russian authorities must urgently investigate these reports. He said failure to do so should increase the resolve of the international community to step in and deploy international mechanisms to probe and deliver justice. Hogarth outlined that civilians held by enemy forces should be protected from any abuse at all time. He believes the forcible transfer or deportation from occupied territory, and their torture, or other ill-treatment amount to crimes under international law.

Belkis Wille from the Human Rights Watch said the disturbing allegations, including executions, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary, detention and rape, are consistent with a range of abuses that the organization has documented.