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Amid Intensified Fighting, Reports Continue To Surface Of Ukrainians Forcibly Relocated To Russia

Refugees leave the besieged city of Mariupol on March 22.

As fighting in Ukraine’s south and east intensifies, reports that Russian forces are forcibly relocating Ukrainians citizens to Russia continue to surface.

RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service has spoken with Ukrainians from Mariupol -- and activists in Astrakhan, a region in southern Russia, working with refugees -- who say that they were brought to the country by force.

They asked that their identities remain anonymous in order to protect against retribution, but the accounts feed into a growing body of evidence that Russian troops have moved thousands of Ukrainians into Russia against their will from areas under their control in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of transporting hundreds of thousands of civilians from shattered Ukrainian cities, taking their documents, and putting them in so-called “filtration camps” in Ukraine’s separatist-controlled areas, before moving them to Russia.

According to Ukrainian authorities, many of those civilians are believed to have come from Mariupol, which has been devastated by Russian bombardment since Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24 and is the epicenter of a brutal war of attrition that has seen Russian troops take control of large parts of the damaged city.

Ukrainian refugees arrive in Tatarstan on April 1.
Ukrainian refugees arrive in Tatarstan on April 1.

Russian officials have said that more than 674,000 Ukrainians have been moved to Russia since the war began, but claim that they were transported voluntarily from the separatist-controlled areas or parts of Ukraine under heavy fighting.

However, multiple first-person accounts compiled by media outlets like RFE/RL, The Guardian, The Washington Post, CNN, and the BBC, as well as open-source satellite imagery, contradict the Russian claims, with Ukrainians recounting how Russian troops made them leave shelters or bunkers in besieged cities and then interrogated before transporting them to Russian territory.

Filtration Camps

In Astrakhan, officials claim that more than 400 refugees have come from Ukraine, but have only recently stated that they arrived from areas outside of separatist-controlled territory in Donetsk and Luhansk, like Mariupol.

The "filtration camps," as Ukrainian officials refer to them, have been used as processing centers by Russian troops, where they fingerprint and photograph Ukrainian refugees before sending them to Russia. According to some accounts, Ukrainians were told to hand over their phones and other electronic devices, as well as passwords, before being interrogated.

WATCH: Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, almost 4.5 million Ukrainians have left the country. Most of them are now in Europe, but some went to Russia. The residents of the Donbas often had no choice but to go to Russia, because the road to western Ukraine was cut off. Some of them eventually made it to Europe, and they recalled the ordeal they went through to get there.

Evacuated To Russia: A Ukrainian Refugee's Story
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A March report from the Russian state-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta said that thousands of Ukrainians were being processed in Bezimenne, a village in eastern Ukraine, where the newspaper said that they were undertaking measures to stop “Ukrainian nationalists from infiltrating Russia disguised as refugees so they could avoid punishment.”

Ukrainian officials have warned that the existence of such camps have echoes of previous Russian military campaigns, such as during the 1990s in Chechnya, where thousands of Chechens were interrogated in makeshift facilities, and many disappeared.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have already been deported,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said during his April 12 video address to Lithuania’s parliament. “They are placed in special filtration camps. Their documents are taken away from them. They are interrogated and humiliated. How many are killed is unknown.”

Life Inside Russia

However, many people have also moved from Ukraine to Russia on their own accord.

Larisa Lunkina told RFE/RL that she left her home in the Donbas soon after the war began and has since been living in Kazan, a city in southwest Russia, along with other displaced Ukrainians.

Residents of Mariupol who have not yet fled walk down an avenue of the city amid the wreckage of war on April 12.
Residents of Mariupol who have not yet fled walk down an avenue of the city amid the wreckage of war on April 12.

Lunkina, who brought her teenage son Nikita with her to Russia, says that they currently face uncertainty in their new situation but are happy to be far away from the fighting that they have since seen on television and encountered in the previous eight years during conflict in eastern Ukraine.

She says they are given regular meals each day but is worried about money. She says she is currently not able to work due to health problems and does not have access to permanent housing.

“We are not at home here, despite what they might say,” Lunkina said.

In other parts of Russia, refugees arriving from Ukraine are being assigned work duties.

Ruslan Pashayev, minister of agriculture for the southern city of Astrakhan, said that people evacuated from Ukraine would be given shifts at a poultry farm in the region.

Few details about the arrangement were revealed, but Pashayev added that management from the poultry company has already met with potential workers and offered them housing in a village close to the farm.

Nikita, who is preparing to begin the 11th grade, said that despite statements to the contrary from officials on the news in Russia, they and other Ukrainian refugees in Russia have not received any financial help in Kazan.

“Deputies come, talk, and leave. They happily forget about us,” he said. “Only ordinary people help, not officials. There is no initiative from the state at all.”

Written by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.
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    RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service

    RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service is the only major international news provider reporting in the Tatar and Bashkir languages to audiences in the Russian Federation’s multiethnic, Muslim-majority Volga-Ural region.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.