(Berlin) – Scores of migrants who had been arbitrarily detained in Ukraine remain locked up there and are at heightened risk amid the hostilities, including military activity in the vicinity, Human Rights Watch said today. Ukrainian authorities should immediately release migrants and asylum seekers detained due to their migration status and allow them to reach safety in Poland.
“Migrants and asylum seekers are currently locked up in the middle of a war zone and justifiably terrified,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There is no excuse, over a month into this conflict, for keeping civilians in immigration detention. They should be immediately released and allowed to seek refuge and safety like all other civilians.”
In early March 2022, Human Rights Watch interviewed four men by telephone who are being held in the Zhuravychi Migrant Accommodation Center in Volyn’ oblast. The detention site is a former military barracks in a pine forest, one hour from Lutsk, a city in northwestern Ukraine. All interviewees said that they had been detained in the months prior to the Russian invasion for irregularly trying to cross the border into Poland.
The men asked that their nationalities not be disclosed for security reasons but said that people of up to 15 nationalities were being held there, including people from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria.
Zhuravychi and two other migrant detention facilities in Ukraine are supported with EU funding. The Global Detention Project has confirmed that the center in Chernihiv has now been emptied but the center in Mykolaiv is operating. Human Rights Watch has been unable to verify whether anyone is still detained there. The men said that at the time of the interviews more than 100 men and an unknown number of women were detained at the Zhuravychi MAC. Some have since been able to negotiate their release, in some cases with help from their embassies. Lighthouse Reports, which is also investigating the issue, has estimated that up to 45 people remain there. It has not been possible to verify this figure or determine whether this includes men and women.
Three of the men said they were in Ukraine on student visas that had expired. All four had tried to cross the border into Poland but were intercepted by Polish border guard forces and handed directly to Ukrainian border guards. The men said they were sentenced to between 6 and 18 months for crossing the border irregularly after summary court proceedings for which they were not provided legal counsel or given the right to claim asylum.
Whatever the original basis for their detention, their continued detention at the center is arbitrary and places them at risk of harm from the hostilities, Human Rights Watch said.
While interviewees said that conditions in the Zhuravychi detention center were difficult prior to the conflict, the situation significantly deteriorated after February 24. In the days following the Russian invasion, they said, members of the Ukrainian military moved into the center. The detention center guards moved all migrant and asylum seekers into one of the two buildings in the complex, freeing the second building for Ukrainian soldiers.
A video, verified and analyzed by Human Rights Watch, shows scores of Ukrainian soldiers standing in the courtyard of the Zhuravychi MAC, corroborating the accounts that the Ukrainian military is actively using the site. Another video, also verified by Human Rights Watch, shows a military vehicle slowly driving on the road outside the detention center. Recorded from the same location, a second video shows a group of approximately 30 men in camouflage uniforms walking on the same road and turning into the compound next door.
On or around the date after the full-scale invasion, the people interviewed said a group of detainees gathered in the yard of the detention center near the gate to protest the conditions and asked to be allowed leave to go to the Polish border.
The guards refused to open the gate and instead forcibly quelled the protest and beat the detainees with their batons, they said. Human Rights Watch analyzed a video that appears to show the aftermath of the protest: a group of men crowd around an unconscious man lying on the ground. People interviewed said that a guard had punched him. A group of guards are also visible in the video, in black uniforms standing near the gate.
“We came out to peacefully protest,” one of those interviewed said. “We want to go. We are terrified.… We tried to walk towards the gate … and after we were marching towards the gate.… They beat us. It was terrible. Some of my friends were injured.”
Interviewees said that guards said they could leave Zhuravychi if they joined the Ukrainian war effort and added they would all immediately be granted Ukrainian citizenship and documentation. They said that no one accepted the offer.
On March 18, five men and one woman were released when officials from their embassy intervened and facilitated their evacuation and safe travel to the border with Poland. Ukraine should release all migrants and asylum seekers detained at the Zhuravychi detention center and facilitate their safe travel to the Polish border, Human Rights Watch said.
The European Union (EU) has long funded Ukraine’s border control and migration management programs and funded the International Center for Migration Policy Development to construct the perimeter security systems at Zhuravychi MAC. The core of the EU’s strategy has been to stop the flow of migrants and asylum seekers into the EU by shifting the burden and responsibility for migrants and refugees to countries neighboring the EU, in this case Ukraine. Now that Ukraine has become a war zone, the EU should do all it can to secure the release and safe passage of people detained in Ukraine because of their migration status. United Nations agencies and other international actors should support this call to release civilians at Zhuravychi and any other operational migrant detention centers and provide assistance where relevant.
“There is so much suffering in Ukraine right now and so many civilians who still need to reach safety and refuge,” Hardman said. “Efforts to help people flee Ukraine should include foreigners locked up in immigration detention centers.”