Deportation of Ukrainians in the Spotlight of the Global Community
Russia has been conducting mass, forcible deportations of Ukrainians for centuries as a practice of imperialism over occupied territories. Throughout the 20th century, millions of Ukrainians were evicted from their homes and forcibly relocated deep into Russia. In 2022, millions more were illegally deported. A notable difference between those two eras of deportation is the global community’s awareness of such actions. Numerous politicians and spokespersons worldwide have described the deportations as a strategy in Russia’s war. Peace discussions cannot progress until all deported Ukrainians return. President Zelenskyy has stated that their return is among the ten conditions for ending the war. If the global community and leaders actively address and act upon this issue, there is a possibility of ending the war.
Deportation is the forcible abduction and eviction of specific people or groups, followed by their relocation. It serves multiple roles and manifests in various ways. In contexts like wartime, military conflict, or national policy (as seen in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany), deportation can be a crime against humanity (per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 6 and 9), a war crime (Geneva Convention IV, Article 147), or be considered as a genocide (UN Genocide Convention, Article II (e)).
Since February 24, 2022, official numbers of those forcibly deported may vary due to different sources, such as Ukrainians, Russian or independent statistics, and the ongoing nature of the war. Nevertheless, the figures are alarming:
- According to the Ukrainian government portal Children of War, approximately 19.000 Ukrainian children have been separated from their families and deported to Russia, with only 384 returning to Ukraine.
- Dmytro Lubinets, Ukrainian Ombudsman, estimates 2.8 million Ukrainians have been deported by Russian troops since February 24, 2022.
- The UN reports 2.5 million Ukrainians have been unlawfully deported to the Russian Federation.
- The January 16, 2023, report of the Ukraine 5 AM Coalition states that the number of deported Ukrainians varies from 2.8 to 4.7 million, including 260.000 to 700.000 children.
In Russian media, terms like “evacuation”, “temporary relocation”, and “protection of citizens” are used to describe deportation, disguising the reality of forcible abduction and eviction of Ukrainians.
“Deportation as a phenomenon includes other human rights violations and war crimes, such as torture and inhumane treatment, along with filtration measures that often precede the deportation,” explains Alyona Lunyova, advocacy director of the Human Rights Centre ZMINA.
Mass deportations of Ukrainians conducted by Russia serve several purposes:
- Altering the ethnic landscape of occupied Ukrainian territories, essentially ethnic cleansing;
- Erasing Ukrainian identity;
- Russifying Ukrainian children for subsequent adoption by Russian families;
- Addressing Russia’s demographic crisis;
- Clearing temporary occupied Ukrainian territories and resettling them with Russians.
Oleksii Danilov, Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, stated, “Putin’s martial law in the annexed regions of Ukraine is a preparation for the mass deportation of the Ukrainian population to areas of Russia, aimed at changing the ethnic composition of the occupied territory.”
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assesses that the forced deportation of Ukrainian citizens to the Russian Federation likely constitutes a deliberate ethnic cleansing campaign.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine and Minister of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, commented, “Our intelligence confirms that Russia is attempting another act of genocide. I won’t even call it a deportation because the forced, violent removal of Ukrainian citizens is an act of genocide, and of course, they [Russians] will be held accountable for this.”
Additionally, forcibly transferring children from one group to another violates Article II(e) of the Genocide Convention. Daria Herasymchuk reported that over 13.000 Ukrainian children have been forcibly deported by Russians to the Russian Federation, and this, unfortunately, is not the final figure. She added that “we still have to learn about at least tens of thousands of Ukrainian children stolen by Russian authorities.”
International law explicitly prohibits deportation within or from an occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power, constituting a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). International law and practice also prohibit adoption during or immediately after emergencies. Ukraine imposed a moratorium on inter-country adoptions early in the war. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Fourth Geneva Convention forbid occupying powers from altering children’s personal status, including their nationality.
“All the evidence is before the eyes of public opinion in all countries, listed and documented, similar to Russian strikes on Ukrainian civilians used as weapons of war since Russia’s invasion on February 24. The most vulnerable, minors, are victims of deportation. Teenagers who refuse to sing the Russian national anthem are taken to re-education camps. Under the Rome Statute, these actions constitute genocide and crimes against humanity,” said Emmanuel Daoud, an expert on international criminal law and human rights.
Karim Khan, the International Criminal Court prosecutor, has stated, “Prosecutors investigating war crimes cases in Ukraine are examining allegations of the forcible deportation of children to Russia since the invasion as part of building a genocide indictment.”
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Stages of deportation
The Russian deportation of Ukrainians is executed in four distinct stages.
Abduction, Eviction, and/or Kidnapping
Upon seizing Ukrainian cities and villages, Russian soldiers force people out of bomb shelters, homes, and hiding places. Residents are given up to an hour to gather belongings and documents. This eviction is mandatory, and non-compliance results in punishment.
Such “evacuations” are further enforced by limiting escape options. Russian soldiers and authorities in occupied territories only allow Ukrainians to leave via “evacuation” routes leading to the Russian border or to the quasi-republics L/DNR. The voluntary nature of these deportations is questionable, as they can be deemed ‘forcible’ even without physical force due to the coercive environment created by the Russian Federation, leaving residents with no choice but to leave.
Cases of Russians kidnapping children from orphanages, kindergartens, medical institutions, and other places housing minors have been reported. These children are often transported to filtration spots or camps for further deportation to Russian territory, Belarus, or temporarily occupied Crimea.
After civilians are evicted from temporarily occupied territories, they are taken by Russian soldiers to filtration spots or camps. Here, Ukrainians are divided into two groups: women, children, and the elderly, and men aged 16–60.
Filtration involves compulsory security screening, whereas Russians collect biometric data (including fingerprints and front and side facial images), conduct body searches, inspect personal belongings and phones, and interrogate about political views. Many Ukrainian civilians report being kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions for durations ranging from a few hours to nearly a month.
Tetiana Katrychenko, coordinator at the Media Initiative for Human Rights, describes filtration as having three levels: “The first level is a quick check at the demarcation line or in a specific settlement. The second involves transportation to filtration centers for thorough inspections and interrogations. The third level occurs when Russians have suspicions, leading to detainees being subjected to brutal interrogations and prolonged detention, as in the case of drivers who helped evacuate people from Mariupol. These individuals underwent this third level of filtration and were sent to detention facilities, like the penal facility in Olenivka, with some being held for 60 or 90 days under so-called arrest.”
Those Ukrainians who pass through filtration are transported to the Russian border and sent by train or bus to various locations such as Kazan, Voronezh, or the Russian Far East. Upon arrival, they are typically housed in temporary accommodations like churches, boarding houses, schools, medical institutions, or refugee centers. Common resettlement sites for deported Ukrainians include monasteries, charitable organizations, and sports and recreation complexes.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine and Minister of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, shared, “We have information that our Ukrainians have been resettled in 57 regions of Russia, including the Far East and Siberia. We find Ukrainians across Russia. We’re documenting these facts, which will likely form the basis of a special tribunal and charges against Russia and its officials.”
In this stage, Russian authorities often seize Ukrainian passports and coerce Ukrainians into signing agreements to remain in Russia, thereby obstructing their return. This appears to be an effort to alter Ukraine’s demographic composition.
An Amnesty International report states, “Russia has taken a number of steps, such as simplifying the Russian process of obtaining Russian citizenship to facilitate the adoption of some Ukrainian orphans and children without parental care, that strongly suggest an organized effort to absorb some members of these groups into Russian society. These actions indicate a deliberate Russian policy related to the deportation from Ukraine to Russia of some civilians, including children.”
The Russian regime effectively holds deported Ukrainians of all ages hostage, forcing them to cooperate and testify against the Ukrainian government and army.
The Russian authorities have unlawfully deported thousands of Ukrainian children. After passing through filtration camps, these children are taken to undisclosed locations, presumably orphanages, or illegally adopted by Russian families. Deported Ukrainian children are suffering in the places of their displacement. The Ukrainian Ombudsman reported on September 3, 2022, that over 200,000 children had been forcibly taken to the Russian Federation, with the intent of making them available for adoption by Russian families. They could verify the circumstances of 7,000 forcibly deported Ukrainian children.
Deported individuals become hostages of the Russian regime, coerced into cooperating and testifying against their own government. Peace negotiations remain unfeasible until all deported Ukrainians return. President Zelensky emphasizes this, stating, “…we know by name 11,000 children who were forcibly deported to Russia. They are separated from their parents despite being aware that they have families. Besides these children, whose data we have, tens of thousands were forcibly deported, about whom we only know indirectly. Among them are many whose parents were killed by Russian strikes, and now they are in the custody of the state responsible for their parent’s deaths.”
The return of deported Ukrainians is one of the ten essential conditions for ending the war, as outlined by President Zelenskyy. Peace talks cannot advance until this condition is met.
The only way to halt the illegal deportations of Ukrainians is to continue supporting Ukraine and intervene in Russia’s deliberate policy of deportation. At Where Are Our People?, we have developed eight ways anyone can help address the issue of forcible deportation. To learn more, follow the link.
Oleksii Havryliuk, author
Maksym Sushchuk, editor