BELGOROD REGION, RUSSIA - MARCH 17, 2022: Servicemen watch evacuees from Ukraine s Kharkiv Region get off a bus at the Nekhoteyevka border checkpoint. A total of 175 Ukrainian citizens include seniors, disabled people and 34 children. Russian Defence Ministry/TASS VIDEO SCREEN GRAB. BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE. THIS STILL IMAGE WAS PROVIDED 17 March 2022 BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY PUBLICATIONxINxGERxAUTxONLY TS1280E3

The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Russia and pro-Russian separatists of forcibly relocating Ukrainians to Russia and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. That’s according to a 71-page report titled “We Had No Choice: ‘Filtration’ and the War Crime of Forcibly Transferring Ukrainian Civilians to Russia,” the organization released on Thursday.

For its report, the human rights organization conducted interviews with 54 people. These include people who went to Russia, who had family members or friends who were extradited to Russia, or who supported Ukrainians. And they try to leave the country again.

Most of these people come from the formerly heavily contested Mariupol – but some also from the region around the city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. There are no exact figures on how many civilians were brought to Russia from Ukraine.

Human Rights Watch cites a Russian agency report from late July that more than 2.8 million Ukrainians, including 448,000 children, have entered Russia. However, some people also stated that they went to Russia voluntarily, such as men of fighting age who are prohibited from leaving the country under Ukrainian martial law.

The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of kidnapping more than a thousand children since the start of the aggressive war. “Russia continues to kidnap children from Ukrainian territory and arrange for their illegal adoption by Russian citizens,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said in late August.

According to the HRW report, the Russian and pro-Russian troops organized transports from Mariupol and told the people that they had no choice but to be taken to Russian or Russian-occupied territory. A woman from the southeastern Ukrainian port city told the human rights organization: “Of course we would have taken the opportunity to go to Ukraine if we could have. But we had no choice, no way to go there.”

Respondents heading to Ukrainian-controlled areas told HRW that at Russian or pro-Russian checkpoints they were told to make their own way to those areas. A 70-year-old man from near Kharkiv was threatened by Russian soldiers that the Ukrainians would “execute” him if he did not flee to Russia.

In some cases, evacuation buses would drive to Russia without the passengers knowing beforehand. “Ukrainian civilians should be given no choice but to go to Russia,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. This practice “should be discontinued immediately”.

In addition to the forced resettlements, thousands of Ukrainian citizens have been subjected to so-called filtration, the HRW report says. This is a form of “punitive and abusive security screening”. As a rule, biometric data was collected, but personal belongings and telephones were also searched and surveys were carried out on political views.

The HRW report quotes a Mariupol man who was held in filthy conditions in a village schoolhouse for two weeks before being taken for filtration. He said many had fallen ill and were afraid of what awaited them. “We felt like hostages,” he said.

A report by the US elite university Yale has verified 20 locations in the Donetsk region alone that were used for these procedures – there are at least indications of many more. One of them, the Olenivka prison camp, became world famous on July 29 when an explosion allegedly killed 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war. Ukraine and Russia blame each other.

However, the Yale investigation indicates that graves were dug at the camp long before the fatal incident. It is suspected that Russia wanted to use the explosion to cover up war crimes.