Ukrainians forcibly deported to Russia are making their way to Europe through Estonia, the Estonian Human Rights Center confirmed to ERR News on Friday. One of the hardest parts is crossing the Russian border to the EU.
Russia has been deporting thousands of Ukrainian citizens from areas of active fighting, such as the besieged city of Mariupol, according to media reports. On Friday, transport companies said some deportees were managing to make their way to the EU via Estonia.
Asylum lawyer at the Estonian Human Rights Center (Eesti Inimõiguste Keskus) Uljana Ponomarjova told ERR News the organization has been contacted by people trying to leave Russia after being deported by Russian forces from Mariupol. The NGO can offer advice on legal matters.
"I've been contacted by some people who were on the move and they contact me as soon as they reach Estonia if they need any legal help," she said.
The lawyer said one of the hardest parts for the Ukrainians is when they try and cross the Russian border into the European Union.
"It's hard for them to cross the border because the Russian side will conduct interviews with them, FSB officers who ask a lot of questions about what they think about the war — although they will call it a special operation, of course. They are looking through phones, they connect the phone to some kind of machine probably they are downloading all the information and meta-data of the phone and if there is some kind of suspicion they will be cross-questioned all the time, [asked] the same like five or six times. Eventually, the people we were talking to got out," she said, describing the process.
"But the main problem is the Russian border, we always recommend deleting data from phones and to be very careful when answering questions."
She said there are usually no issues on the Estonian side. Ponomarjova said she did not know if people have problems traveling through Russia.
Asked if people were forcibly removed and about how people leave Mariupol she said: "Yes, so they say to us. They are forcibly removed because there is no other possible way to go somewhere else, to the Ukrainian side, they [Russian forces] are blocking the roads, it's not safe. They are just putting them on buses and taking them away. This is the only way to escape for them. They are not letting them stay and they are not letting them go to the Ukrainian side."
Asked if she knew where people were taken when deported, Ponomarjova said: "No, not exactly. One person was taken to the so-called Donetsk People's Republic in a small village and they were holding them there in the Russian Federation part. After that, they go elsewhere."
Speaking about what happened at the reception centers, she said: "One person was taken to the center and their European Union visa was removed from the passport and they tried to give them some kind of refugee status or something like that, but they didn't want it. It is very hard to get out of the center where they are holding them, but some people can get out."
Asked if she knew what else was happening there, she said: "No, not really. I know that people are being questioned there as well."
Asked how many people had arrived in Estonia from Mariupol, she said: "I have no idea how many — my phone is ringing all the time. I just try to help everyone I can."
She said most people who arrive in Estonia do not want to speak about their experiences: "They just say what they need to say to do the legal proceedings and that's it. We don't want to traumatize people again."
Ponomarjova said she has also been contacted by other Ukrainians looking to leave Russia since the war began on February 24.
On Friday, bus company Lux Express confirmed deported Ukrainians were making their way to Europe through Estonia. The Estonian Refugee Council also confirmed the information.
Ukraine has accused Russia of forcibly relocating thousands of civilians from Mariupol, the BBC reported earlier this week. Russia is housing an estimated 5,000 at a temporary camp in Bezimenne, east of Mariupol, seen in satellite images.
Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 40,000 had been moved from Ukraine to Russian-held territory without any coordination with Kyiv. The defense ministry says Russia is relocating Ukrainians from occupied areas en masse to distant parts of Russia, including Sakhalin in the far east.
Editor: Helen Wright