A woman eats food given to her by volunteers at a food delivery station run by a Hare Krishna group in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 20, 2022. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo
July 14 (UPI) -- The United States has demanded that Russia immediately release the hundreds of thousands of civilians it claims the Kremlin has forcibly deported from Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the demand Wednesday ahead of the Ukraine Accountability Conference at The Hague, where the International Criminal Court and others will gather to ensure that perpetrators of war crimes committed during Russia's invasion in Ukraine are punished.
If true, the allegation made against Russia would amount to a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians, which prohibits the individual or mass forcible transfers of citizens to the territory of the occupying country, regardless of motive.
"Russian authorities must release those detained and allow Ukrainian citizens forcibly removed or coerced into leaving their country the ability to promptly and safely return home," Blinken said in a statement.
The accusation that the Kremlin is forcibly deporting Ukrainians to Russian has been raised for months, with Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk stating on June 21 that the number of removed citizens was about 1.2 million. President Volodymyr Zelensky in his Wednesday night address said the number had now reached about 2 million.
Blinken said that based on "a variety of sources," including the Russian government, between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainians -- including 260,000 children -- have been relocated to Russia, in particular to isolated regions in the Far East.
To enter the country, it has been reported that Ukrainians must go through so-called filtration facilities where their biometric and personal data is retrieved and stored and where their Ukrainian passports are exchanged for Russian travel documents.
Zelensky said tens of thousands of people remain at these facilities in which young women have also disappeared.
"I think you all understand what is happening with them there," he said.
Blinken said families are separated at the facilities, stating it is being done in an apparent effort "to change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine."
He said there is mounting evidence that thousands of Ukrainians who do not pass filtration due to potential connections to the Ukrainian army, media, government or civil groups are being detained or disappeared.
Washington's top diplomat has also called on Russia to allow outside independent observers access to these facilities.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has previously raised the issue of allegations of forced deportations of Ukrainians and said last month that the agency fears orphans in eastern Donbas, where bloody fighting has been raging for months, could be deported to families in Russia.