In recent days, two reports – from New York-based Human Rights Watch and Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab – have shed new light on the scale of the filtration network and its impact on civilians. Both reports indicate that there is evidence that the system violates the laws of war.
The forcible transfer or deportation of civilians from occupied territory is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, which govern the conduct of armed conflict. Moscow denies claims it forcibly displaced residents – instead saying Russian forces are “protecting” civilians from Ukrainian troops.
“We have information that officials from the Russian presidential administration are overseeing and coordinating these screening operations,” Emma Gilligan, a senior expert with the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, told reporters on Wednesday.
“We also know that Russia uses advanced technology to facilitate filtering processes, especially for the purpose of collecting data on Ukrainian citizens,” she said.
In his report published on Thursday, Human Rights Watch described the filtering system in Ukraine as a “massive exercise in illegal data collection” without “any legal basis”.
Residents are directed to registration sites, where they are screened and released or detained. Some Ukrainians have disappeared, according to Human Rights Watch, or been deported to Russia without identity papers.
Ukrainians who go through the system have had their phone contacts uploaded, their fingerprints and photographs taken and their passport numbers collected, according to the Yale reportreleased last week.
The researchers said they found “with great confidence” that Russian and allied forces in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine used 21 sites for “filtration operations”.
The sites include registration points, temporary detention centers, interrogation centers and prisons for long-term detention.
The scale of the filtration system is “significant,” said Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Humanitarian Research Laboratory, in the same briefing with reporters on Wednesday. The lab’s report is part of the Conflict Observatory, an initiative supported by the State Department to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
One of the locations identified by the report includes a school in Bezimenne, a village east of Mariupol. In May, the Washington Post geotagged video clips showing the school, where men forcibly taken from Mariupol were detained, made to sleep on the floor and threatened with torture and execution, according to a Telegram article accompanying the footage.
Satellite images and videos too verified by La Poste in March showed Russian-backed forces building a tent city in the area. Russian authorities described it at the time as a “life support” center for refugees from Mariupol, while Ukrainian leaders accused Russia of taking residents to “filtration camps” against their will.
According to Human Rights Watch, some Ukrainians traveled to Russia voluntarily, including men who wanted to avoid martial law in Ukraine, which prohibits most men of military age from leaving the country.
It is not known exactly how many Ukrainians were deported to Russia, or even subjected to the “filtration” screening process. In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Russia had expelled between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens – and that many of those “forcibly expelled”, including 260,000 children, ended up in the Russian Far East.
In late June, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk estimated 1.2 million Ukrainians forcibly moved to Russia, while Russia said nearly 2.5 million Ukrainian “refugees” were settled in the country.
Yet much remains unknown about the filtration system, including how Russian authorities use the data they collect and where many of the people detained or transferred to Russia ended up.
“This report really needs to serve as a basis for further investigation, advocacy and hopefully international access to these sites which are, to be clear, a human rights emergency. man,” Raymond said.