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U.S. calls on Russia to stop 'filtration' camps, forced deportations of Ukrainians

The United States has called on Russia to immediately stop its systematic “filtration” and forced deportation of millions of Ukrainians in territories under Moscow’s control and to allow outside observers access to camps through which they pass.

“The unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians and is a war crime,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Wednesday.

Blinken said Russian authorities have “ interrogated, detained, and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, from their homes to Russia — often to isolated regions in the Far East.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday that the number of Ukrainians taken to Russia could be as high as 2 million people. “No one will say the exact numbers now,” he said in a video address.

“All these deported people are deprived of communication, their documents are taken from them, they are intimidated and they try to disperse them to remote areas of Russia so that it is as difficult as possible for them to return home to the Motherland,” Zelenskyy added.

Russia has denied that it forces Ukrainians from their homes and claims that it is providing humanitarian assistance and safe passage to people who want to leave the country. But mounting evidence proves this is not true and that the filtration camps were planned in advance of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24.

The U.S. said last week that it had identified 18 filtration camps set up along the Ukrainian-Russian border.

Russia has called its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” aimed at “liberating” areas of eastern Ukraine. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly made it clear through his actions and words that his ultimate goal is to see Ukraine brought completely under Russian control, if not destroyed altogether.

“Largely speaking, we haven’t even yet started anything in earnest,” Putin said of his invasion of Ukraine last week, Reuters reported. He added that Russia was prepared to fight “until the last Ukrainian is left standing.”

To increase Moscow’s influence in Ukraine and provide a further pretext for its control of territory to meddle there, on Monday, Putin signed a decree simplifying the naturalization process for all Ukrainians to receive Russian citizenship. The simplified procedure was previously only allowed for those Ukrainians from the occupied areas of eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

When pushing Ukrainians through the filtration camps, Moscow’s forces have told their captives they would be better off if they take up Russian citizenship.

Survivors of Russia’s filtration operations have said they faced horrific treatment at the hands of Russian soldiers and officials overseeing the camps and deportations. One family from Mariupol described in interviews with POLITICO how they were forced from their homes in freezing temperatures, crammed onto buses without food and water, and driven across the border to Russia, where they were separated.

The family said they endured several searches and interrogations along the way that lasted hours. They were lucky to have escaped Russia, eventually making their way to EU countries.

Blinken cited reports that Russian authorities often coerce Ukrainian citizens forced through the camps into signing agreements to stay in Russia, making it difficult or even impossible to return home.

Russian authorities, Blinken continued, “are deliberately separating Ukrainian children from their parents and abducting others from orphanages before putting them up for adoption inside Russia.”

“Evidence is mounting that Russian authorities are also reportedly detaining or disappearing thousands of Ukrainian civilians who do not pass ‘filtration,’” Blinken said. Many of those include members of the Ukrainian army, territorial defense forces, media, government, and civil society groups, he said.

Citing Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office, Blinken said Russian authorities have “transported tens of thousands of people to detention facilities inside Russian-controlled Donetsk, where many are reportedly tortured.” Some, he added, are reported to have been “summarily executed.”

Blinken demanded that Russia release Ukrainian detainees and allow citizens forcibly taken across the border “to promptly and safely return home.”