Moscow and its separatist allies in Ukraine are using a vast and punitive “filtration” system to detain, interrogate and surveil Ukrainians, according to U.S. officials and human rights investigators, and have forcibly transferred hundreds of thousands to Russia since the start of the war.
In recent days, two reports — from the 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.
Accounts of interrogations and abuse from Ukrainian refugees who went through the process had been reported previously, including by The Washington Post. The new reports flesh out the picture of the scale and workings of the filtration system, as well as the fates of Ukrainians deported to Russia, hardening evidence of potential Russian war crimes.
The forcible transfer or deportation of civilians from occupied territory is prohibited under the Geneva Convention, which regulates the conduct of armed conflict. Moscow denies allegations it has forcibly relocated residents — instead claiming that Russian forces are “protecting” civilians from Ukrainian troops.
“We do have information that officials from Russia’s presidential administration are overseeing and coordinating these filtration operations,” Emma Gilligan, a senior expert with the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, told reporters Wednesday.
“We also know that Russia is using advanced technology to facilitate filtration processes, including for the purposes of collecting data on Ukrainian citizens,” she said.
In its report released Thursday, Human Rights Watch described the filtration system in Ukraine as a “mass illegal data collection exercise” with “no legal underpinnings.”
Residents are funneled to registration sites, where they are screened and released or detained. Some Ukrainians have disappeared, according to Human Rights Watch, or were deported to Russia without identification documents.
Ukrainians who go through the system have had their phone contacts downloaded, fingerprints and photographs taken and passport numbers collected, according to the Yale report, which published last week.
The researchers said they found “with high confidence” that Russian and allied forces in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine have used 21 sites for “filtration operations.”
The sites include registration points, temporary holding facilities, interrogation centers and prisons for long-term detention.
The scale of the filtration system is “significant,” Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Humanitarian Research Lab, said at the same briefing with reporters on Wednesday. The lab’s report is part of the Conflict Observatory, a State Department-supported initiative 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 Post geolocated 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 post accompanying the footage.
Satellite images and videos also verified by The Post in March showed Russian-backed forces building a tent city in the area. Russian authorities described it at the time as a “life-supporting” center for refugees from Mariupol, while Ukrainian leaders accused Russia of taking residents to “filtration camps” against their will.
New #ConflictObservatory report by @HRL_YaleSPH maps a system of filtration facilities to screen Ukrainian civilians, combatants (including potential prisoners of war), and others in Donetsk oblast beginning in March 2022. https://t.co/PkugnPZd8h pic.twitter.com/IhxdwmxUsP— ObserveConflict (@ObserveConflict) August 25, 2022
According to Human Rights Watch, some Ukrainians traveled to Russia voluntarily, including men who wanted to avoid martial law in Ukraine, which bars most military-age men from leaving the country.
It remains unclear exactly how many Ukrainians have been deported to Russia, or even subjected to the “filtration” screening process. In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Russia had deported 900,000 to 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens — and that many of those “forcibly deported,” including 260,000 children, have ended up in Russia’s far east.
In late June, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk put the number of Ukrainians forcibly moved to Russia at 1.2 million, while Russia has said nearly 2.5 million Ukrainian “refugees” had moved to the country.
Still, much remains unknown about the filtration system, including how Russian authorities are using the data they collect and where many who were detained or transferred to Russia have ended up.
“This report is really to serve as a foundation for further investigation, advocacy and hopefully access by the international community to these sites that constitute, to be clear, a human rights emergency,” Raymond said.