‘They’re trying to assimilate us’ Ukrainian civilians deported to Russia describe forced evacuations and ‘filtration camps’
On March 18, Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon published a video message addressed to Ukrainians living in territories occupied or surrounded by Russian troops. He warned that there are “two types of humanitarian corridors” — those organized by Ukraine and those organized by Russia, and he urged people not to use the latter.
“According to our information, Ukrainians who leave through the humanitarian corridors organized by the Russian authorities go through severe tests. And they end up in so-called filtration camps that were created exactly like the infamous NKVD camps in Soviet times. We have a lot of information that residents of Mariupol — in particular, those leaving along humanitarian corridors organized by the Russian authorities — ended up in these filtration camps in large numbers, where they are tortured, harassed, and their fate is shrouded in mystery,” Gordon said. He did not explain where he got this information.
Attempts to evacuate civilians from areas where fighting is taking place has been a key issue throughout the month of March: almost every day, both Russian and Ukrainian officials announced the opening or the disruption of humanitarian corridors. At the same time, Russian officials have thought it important to underscore that Kyiv won’t agree to humanitarian corridors leading to Russia.
The Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly condemned forced deportations of Ukrainian citizens to Russia, as well as filtration camps allegedly designed to weed out anyone with pro-Ukrainian convictions, military personnel, and veterans of the Donbas war, among others.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk claimed that in these camps “[people] are filtered like in Nazi Germany, they’re sorted into trustworthy and untrustworthy, their documents are taken away, and they’re checked for tattoos,” “and if, god forbid, a person has something in the form of a trident or our coat of arms, the person disappears and he can’t be found.” In turn, the Mariupol City Council warned that the filtration camps might be used to try and weed out and “destroy” witnesses of Russian war crimes.
Ukrainian military intelligence reported that Ukrainian citizens are sent from the filtration camps to far-flung and “economically depressed” parts of Russia, including “northern regions” and Sakhalin. “Ukrainians are offered official job placements through employment centers. Those who agree receive documents that prohibit leaving the Russian regions for two years,” said Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate. The exact nature of these documents remains unclear.
That said, the fact that refugees from Ukraine are being spread out across Russia is no secret — on March 12, the government adopted a resolution on the “distribution” of nearly 100,000 people across all of Russia’s regions.
According to both Russian and Ukrainian officials, upwards of 700,000 people from Ukraine have ended up in Russia (this figure includes both residents of the Donbas “people’s republics” and people from areas controlled by Kyiv). Russian authorities report the “evacuation” of between 10,000 and 20,000 people daily. According to official data, as of April 11, around 31,000 people were staying in “temporary accommodation centers” in Russia. A source in the Russian security apparatus told TASS that the rest of the “evacuees” (that is, hundreds of thousands of people) are staying “with relatives and friends.”
Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova also reported that more than 700,000 Ukrainians were taken to Russia. However, the TASS source broke down this figure differently, claiming that more than 737,000 people “from Ukraine and from the Donbas” had crossed the border, including more than 200,000 Russian citizens, more than 400,000 “citizens” of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics,” and 117,000 “citizens of other countries” (apparently, this last figure includes Ukrainian nationals). Whether or not TASS and its source consider all residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine “citizens of the DNR and LNR” by default is unclear.
TASS also reported that 141,000 of these “evacuees” are children. Back in March, President Vladimir Putin called for legislative changes that would allow Russian nationals to adopt orphans from the Donbas who don’t hold Russian citizenship. In turn, Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova accused Russia of kidnapping Ukrainian children, underscoring that “Kyiv has no information” to support claims that the children set to be put up for adoption in Russia are in fact “orphans or without parental care.”
Russia categorically denies Ukraine’s reports about forced deportations — along with all other accusations leveled against Russian forces amid the war (such as killing civilians with indiscriminate shelling, summary executions, attacks on residential areas and civilian infrastructure, and so on).
On April 12, Russia’s Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova stated that “there has never been forced relocation of refugees to Russia […] this is a lie.” “I personally spoke with those in temporary accommodation centers. People recounted how Ukrainian forces herded them into basements and used them as human shields, people wanted to take refuge in Russia,” Moskalkova asserted.
People who were “evacuated” from Ukraine to Russia have confirmed the allegations of coercion and “filtration,” according to a number of testimonies published in the media. Accounts from refugees brought to Russia from Mariupol and surrounding areas have been published by CNN and Current Time TV, among others.
Some of these eyewitnesses said that Russian forces came to the places where they were sheltering from bombardments and ordered them to evacuate; others were forced to go to Russian checkpoints because it was physically impossible for them to evacuate to Ukrainian territory. Some described coming under psychological pressure from Russian forces, who told them that “Ukraine doesn’t care about you” and “no one will evacuate you from here.” Britain’s inews claims that refugees from Mariupol were made to sign documents alleging that the Ukrainian military was shelling the city, and were then told that they could no longer return to Ukraine due to the threat of persecution (the authenticity of these documents has not been independently confirmed).
According to inews, refugees were first transported to centers in Russian-controlled territories of the Donbas, where they were fingerprinted, photographed, checked for “suspicious tattoos,” and interrogated. Russian authorities also took their phones for screening and downloaded their contacts. A 24-year-old woman named Anna said that she was questioned about politics, her attitude toward the “DNR” and Russia, and whether or not she had relatives in the Ukrainian army or in the Azov Regiment. What happened to those whose answers were “unsatisfactory” to the Russian authorities remains unclear.
A man named Artem, whose brother was killed during the shelling of Mariupol, told Current Time TV that he and his family waited in line for “filtration” for four days. He described the conditions in the village of Starobesheve (Donetsk region), where the filtration center was located, as “so-so” — refugees slept on the floor of an assembly hall and were fed “instant noodles, cookies, and tea.” “But given that in Mariupol we were sitting in a basement and went hungry for 20 days, living off only honey, I was more than happy to eat [noodles],” he said.
Based on refugees’ testimonies, the journey to Russia can involve several stages and include moving between different temporary holding centers. Before crossing the border, Ukrainians are issued migration cards, and, according to one account, documents for receiving a payment of 10,000 rubles, about $120 (this is available for those who plan to apply for asylum in Russia).
Anna, whose story was published by the independent Belarusian news outlet Zerkalo, said that before crossing into Russia, the evacuation bus sat at the border, in the cold, for almost nine hours (“practically the entire night”) and she “had to go to the bathroom in a ditch.” She and several other people were then interrogated at the border. “[An FSB officer] interrogated me for an hour. [...] He put a lot of pressure on me. He persistently tried to draw something out [of me], but I didn’t understand what. At that moment it was very scary. I didn’t understand what I did to deserve this,” she said.
As follows from the testimonies, after crossing the border, people are transported in groups to temporary holding centers in different parts of Russia. However, those with friends or relatives in Russia have managed to avoid this — at least according to those who spoke to journalists.
Dmitry, 21, said that upon arriving in the Russian city of Taganrog, he was given a SIM card, food, and toiletries. Then he and the other refugees were taken to an accommodation center in the Sakharezh Health Resort in the Yaroslavl region. Once there, according to Dmitry, arrivals from Ukraine were registered as asylum seekers, given Russian bank cards, offered jobs, and interrogated once again. “I think they’re trying to assimilate us,” he said.
On April 1, the local news site Yarnovosti corroborated this testimony in a report about a “job fair” at the Sakharezh Health Resort, where refugees from Mariupol learned about available positions and even had “preliminary interviews.” The article quoted a woman who said that she and her husband “chose some of the most interesting” job opportunities and were promised documents that would allow them to obtain temporary asylum in Russia. The couple planned to “immediately apply for [Russian] citizenship under the facilitated system,” she said.
According to Dmitry, he obtained a Russian bank card so his Russian relatives could transfer him money in rubles. He then bought a train ticket to Moscow. From there, he traveled to the border town of Ivangorod and crossed into Estonia without a passport. Another refugee interviewed by CNN also left Russia for Estonia; Artem, the man interviewed by Current Time TV, managed to flee to Finland.