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RUSSIA: Escaping forced conscription in Russian-occupied Donetsk

Escaping forced conscription in Russian-occupied Donetsk

By Alexander Khrebet


The Kyiv Independent (04.08.2022) – https://bit.ly/3oTLeNd – Stepan didn’t see daylight for nearly four months. 


Since mid-February, even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, many men of conscription age in Russian-occupied Donetsk, the largest city in Ukraine’s Donbas region, went into hiding, fearing what might happen if they stepped outside.


Many of those who dared to walk out were grabbed by local Kremlin-controlled militants and forcibly sent to the front lines to fight against Ukraine. Most of them were sent without any training, equipment, or combat experience. 


According to residents who spoke to the Kyiv Independent, the city’s streets began to empty about a week before Russia launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. By then, Russian-led militants had already announced a large-scale, forced conscription campaign targeting men between the ages of 18 and 55 in the eastern Ukrainian region they had occupied since 2014.


People started to look for ways to leave the already depopulated city. Several different schemes to smuggle people out emerged just days after men were forced to pick up arms. All of them dangerous and costly.


Stepan, a former resident of Donetsk, told the Kyiv Independent he was able to leave after his friends recommended an expensive, yet reliable, guide.


“I fled because it became unrealistic and dangerous to live in Donetsk. You can’t go outside because of forced conscription. There is no water, no work,” he said. 


Stepan is among the lucky few to have left. Thousands of other men, living in regions occupied by Russian-controlled militants since 2014, have not been so fortunate.


Cannon fodder


The streets of once-busy Donetsk now look empty. In 2014, hundreds of thousands fled Donetsk as Russia took hold of the once prosperous city with a pre-war population of one million. In 2022, a new exodus is taking place as men are fleeing forced conscription.

When local militants began forcibly drafting men from the occupied region in mid-February, some men voluntarily showed up at military registration offices after receiving a notice, believing it was just a formality. It wasn’t.


Once the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started on Feb. 24, Russia used the newly conscripted men from occupied Donbas as cannon fodder in their offensive in eastern Ukraine. 


As people stopped showing up at the registration offices, militants began grabbing people right off the streets and bringing them in. Men of conscription age virtually disappeared from the streets, keeping out of sight by staying at home.


“I never went outside. Others were less lucky. People I knew were snatched straight from work or school. Almost immediately they were sent to the (war’s) hot spots,” Stepan said.


Many, including Stepan, began looking for a way out of occupied territories.


Getting out


With the battles raging west of Donetsk, the only way out is going east through Russia. Most of the time getting out requires knowing someone who can escort you through the border. 


Stepan says the first time you call “the guide,” you need to say you’re looking for transportation documents. He says the guide he called was nervous and was afraid of discussing the details on the phone.


“You found me, so you’ve been told (how it works),” the guide told Stepan. 


The guide scheduled the day of the trip. When the day came, he called in the morning and told Stepan the departure time. The car arrived straight at the entrance to Stepan’s residential building so that Stepan wouldn’t be seen outside.


The militants at the border were in on the scheme and let them pass. Stepan paid a total of 60,000 rubles, equivalent to around $900.


At the Russian border, he was interrogated by the Federal Security Service for several hours. He had to fill out a detailed form about who he was and give up all his social media passwords before eventually being let into the country.


Stepan is now safe in Sweden.


The Kyiv Independent spoke to two other men, Maksym and Yaroslav, who left Donetsk through a similar arrangement. (Editor’s note: The names have been changed to protect their identity.)


“If you leave by car, the guide drives. Often these guides are militants dressed as civilians,” Maksym, who left in June for Rostov, told the Kyiv Independent.


If several people gather for the trip, the cars line up in a column and make their way to the border. The guide’s car usually has a special pass on the windshield.


With the pass, the car won’t be stopped at checkpoints on the way to the border.


According to Maksym, some people leave on their own, bypassing checkpoints through fields. He said that in most cases if a person attempting to flee is stopped at a checkpoint, they can pay a bribe on the spot and get out. 


Success depends on your wallet, communication skills, and the mood of the militant, Maksym said.


Maksym added that initially, the price to be smuggled out in a packed truck was as low as 20,000 rubles ($370) per person. As the war raged on, the prices increased.


From the early days, it was possible to also obtain a “reservation” at work, which said that the employer requires you to continue your duties at work. This exemption allowed many people to escape mobilization and leave the occupied territories early on.


But after the mass departure of people with the work exemption, those obtaining a “reservation” were no longer allowed into Russia.


As the war progresses, the window to escape the region narrows as the prices skyrocket, militants at checkpoints become stricter, and the middlemen known as guides, get arrested.


“In one of the first attempts to leave, I called a guide and a woman answered telling me that the person was in jail,” Stepan recalls.


Another way to escape conscription is to be labeled unfit for service. That is also becoming more expensive to do.


Yaroslav, who left Donetsk in July and was able to move to Portugal, told the Kyiv Independent that he paid $350 in January to have his documents stamped with an “unfit for service” mark.


Today, he says, such a stamp would cost $2,600. 


“Few people can afford to pay this,” said Yaroslav, who had no problem entering Russia with an “unfit for service” stamp.


An explicit war crime


Forced conscription in occupied territories constitutes a war crime according to the Geneva Conventions. It also violates the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.


According to human rights activists, Russia has forcibly mobilized up to 100,000 residents of the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Many of them have already been killed.


According to the Eastern Human Rights Group, the number of those killed is north of a quarter of those mobilized.


“Forced conscription is sending people to die,” Gunduz Mamedov, former deputy prosecutor general, and expert on international humanitarian law, told the Kyiv Independent.


“In Ukraine, forced conscription can lead to up to 12 years in prison (for people involved in the conscription), and if this leads to the person being killed, it is a life sentence (for the perpetrator),” Mamedov said.


Yet it’s hard to enforce these laws, says Alyona Luneva, director of advocacy at Ukraine’s ZMINA human rights center.


“Ukraine cannot do anything to prevent the forced conscription in the occupied territories,” Luneva told the Kyiv Independent.


“Just like with deportation, Ukraine has no legal mechanisms to prevent forced mobilization in occupation.” 


This is what Stepan now fears the most. Low on cash and options, his father and friends are still stuck in Russian-occupied Donbas, facing the possibility of forced conscription.


Editor’s Note: The names of the people interviewed by the Kyiv Independent for this story have been changed to protect their identity as they have shared sensitive information that could place them and their families in danger. 


Photo credits: Getty Images

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BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA: the migration crisis is far from over

By EU High Representative Josep Borrell


EEAS (05.01.2021) – https://bit.ly/3s1MfDo – Over the last weeks, we have witnessed a serious humanitarian crisis concerning hundreds of migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The crisis is largely due to the dysfunctioning governance in the country. However, it also reminds us of the urgent need to update our common asylum and migration policy.


During the past days, in the middle of Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, we have been working with my colleagues Commissioners Johansson and Lenarčič, to mitigate a dramatic humanitarian situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where thousands of vulnerable refugees and migrants are without protection, out in the open in dire winter conditions with their lives at risk. It is an experience from which lessons should be learned.


Totally inappropriate and dangerous living conditions


On 23 December, the Lipa reception centre for migrants was closed down. It was a summer tent facility opened in response to COVID-19 in the Una Sana canton of Bosnia and Herzegovina, bordering Croatia. Over 1,200 migrants were staying there in totally inappropriate and dangerous conditions during the winter.


After BiH authorities ignored repeated appeals to provide basic and secure living conditions and humane treatment, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which administered the Lipa centre, started to close it on 23 December. Reportedly, a handful of occupants then set fire to the camp in protest, rendering it uninhabitable.


3000 migrants without access to basic shelter in winter conditions


The closure of the Lipa centre left around 3000 refugees and migrants without access to basic shelter and services in winter conditions. There would be an alternative: the Bira centre in the nearby city of Bihac, which was refurbished with €3.5 million EU support. It is suitable for winter conditions but stands empty, due to the opposition of local authorities and population to open it.


The BiH Council of Ministers took the decision to open Bira centre – actually twice, on 21 and 31 December. The local authorities however continue to block it, resisting the implementation of the decision of the Council of Ministers. They refer to the lack of sharing of responsibility between the different regions of BiH for managing the presence of migrants and refugees and the local population has expressed concern about its safety, especially in Bihac.


In an attempt to find alternative solutions, the BiH Minister of Security tried to relocate the migrants to Bradina in the Hercegovina-Neretva canton. However, the plan also encountered resistance by the local authorities. The Council of Ministers of BiH did not support the idea and it was ultimately abandoned. Because of the dysfunctionality of decision-making in BiH, no other solution has been made available to the migrants by the state authorities.


With nowhere else to go, some 900 persons have had to continue to sleep in Lipa in the open for a week now and some 800 people have gone off to sleep in abandoned buildings and the woods. The weather is cold and wet, and there is a strong probability of conditions worsening significantly in coming weeks. Lives of many hundreds of people are being seriously jeopardised and their basic human rights disregarded.


The EU engaged from the start of the crisis


The EU has engaged with all actors from the start of the current crisis and called for months on the authorities to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. Finally, after concerted EU outreach over New Years’ Eve, the armed forces of BiH were deployed to provide emergency tents and assistance. This is an important first step, and now urgent work must be carried out to provide basic services such as sanitation, running water, beds and heating.


On 2 January, EU Ambassador/EUSR to Bosnia and Herzegovina Johann Sattler and Ambassadors of Austria, Germany and Italy met in Sarajevo with the Minister of Security of BiH Selmo Cikotic to discuss urgent solutions to address the basic needs of the people and provide humane conditions on the ground.


Around 8,000-9,000 migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina


Looking at the bigger picture, a total of around 8,000-9,000 refugees and migrants are present in BiH. The migrant centres Bira, Borići, Miral, Sedra, Lipa, Ušivak and Blažuj have a capacity of 7,400 places for 5,600 officially registered migrants. Since 2018, the EU has repeatedly asked BiH authorities to address migration effectively. Lipa is not the first crisis.


Despite repeated and high-level EU advocacy and important financial help to address the needs of migrants and refugees and to strengthen border and asylum management, the country’s authorities have not ensured an effective management of reception capacities and a functioning asylum system. Regardless of the fact that these migrants and refugees are overwhelmingly only in BiH because they seek a brighter future in our Union, BiH has an obligation under international human rights instruments to care for them on its territory.


The EU has consistently supported BiH to do so. Since 2018, the EU has provided more than €88 million, to address the immediate needs of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants and to help the country strengthen its migration management capacities. Most recently, on 3 January, the European Commission has announced €3.5 million in humanitarian aid to help the refugees and migrants that face a humanitarian disaster in the Una Sana canton.


We have to ensure that migrants seeking asylum in the EU get decent treatment and humane living conditions during the entire application process. This has to be requested everywhere, in the EU and in our partner countries. Unfortunately, it is not only in BiH that this is a problem. However, what is particular in this case is that fully equipped capacity is available and remains unused. While we stand ready to assist our partner countries to achieve this goal, they must assume their responsibilities in that domain. As an aspiring member of the EU, these principles should apply in BiH.


More broadly, the current crisis in BiH reminds us that the global challenges around migration and addressing migration towards Europe remain one of the most important responsibilities and at the same time, one of the most complex issues that we face. To address this challenge successfully, we need to strengthen our common migration and asylum policy.


The urgency of a new European Pact on Migration and Asylum


To achieve this goal, the European Commission has proposed last September a new Pact on Migration and Asylum, which is currently discussed by the EU member states. It sets out more efficient and faster procedures, to avoid that people spend years in limbo, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. It tries to balance the principles of fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity. At the same time, it looks at cooperation with partner countries on migration and legal pathways. The package’s rapid adoption and implementation is crucial for rebuilding trust between member states and confidence in the capacity of the European Union to manage migration.

Picture: EEAS.

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SWITZERLAND-CHINA secret deal about refugees

An NGO published a confidential document hinting at the disturbing possibility that Chinese State Security agents directly interfere in asylum cases.


by Rosita Šorytė



Bitter Winter (14.12.2020) – https://bit.ly/3mmDjnG – On December 9, 2020, the Spanish NGO Safeguard Defenders published the confidential text of an agreement between Switzerland and China dated December 8, 2015. That the agreement existed was known from an article published on NZZ am Sonntag on August 23, 2020, which led to considerable political controversy, but Safeguard Defenders has published the text for the first time. Its authenticity has not been disputed.

The deal is part of a broader category of so-called “readmission agreements,” which are commons between democratic countries. They provide for reciprocal cooperation between the immigration authorities of two countries, when an unauthorized immigrant coming from one of them is identified in the other. Once his or her identity and nationality have been ascertained, the two countries cooperate to take the immigrant back home.

The agreement with China, however, is anomalous for three different reasons. First, it is not reciprocal, which can be explained with the fact that perhaps not many Swiss try to illegally immigrate to China.

Second, it authorizes teams of two experts from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to travel to Switzerland confidentially, with their identities kept secret and their travel expenses paid by Swiss taxpayers, to cooperate with Swiss immigration authorities. It is true that the Ministry of Public Security in China is in charge, inter alia, of immigration. But it is also true that it is a ministry of police, also dealing with the repression of dissidents and banned religious groups.

Third, the Chinese “experts” from the Ministry of Public Security are authorized to interview the Chinese “with irregular stay in Switzerland” on Swiss soil, advise the Swiss authorities on whether they should be sent back to China, and share the information they collect with the Chinese Embassy in Bern. The agreement states that personal data collected in the process should be kept “confidential,” and not used for purposes other than those stated in the agreement, but one can easily imagine how safe is information about Chinese who escaped from China in the hands of Beijing’s Embassy.

A key question is whether the Chinese Public Security agents intervene only in the cases of economic immigrants, or also in those concerning refugees who seek asylum in Switzerland for reasons of political or religious persecution. After the NZZ am Sonntag started investigating the matter, this question was officially answered. Swiss authorities told the newspaper that “asylum seekers” are included in the scope of the agreement, and indeed four of them were sent back to China in 2016 after having been interviewed by the Chinese Public Security agents. They were keen to add that “Tibetan and Uighur asylum seekers are not affected by the agreement and would not be sent back to China due to the threat of persecution they face.”

This is good for Tibetans and Uyghurs, but there is an important omission. In Western Europe in general, in recent years the majority of religion-based refugee claims did not come from Tibetans and Uyghurs. They came from Christians persecuted in China, most of them from members of a Christian new religious movement, The Church of Almighty God. Chinese embassies have been active in spreading fake news about this group, and actively intervene to prevent its members from obtaining asylum in democratic countries.

The book by Massimo Introvigne Inside The Church of Almighty God: The Most Persecuted Religious Movement in China, published this year by Oxford University Press, tells the story of Wang Xiumei, a Church of Almighty God asylum seeker in Switzerland, who received a deportation order from the Swiss authorities. Wang agreed to go back to China spontaneously, but took the precaution of not returning to her home in Linshu County, Shandong. Instead, she rented a room in the housing facility of a construction company in the same county. Yet at the end, the police knocked on her door and arrested her as a member of a xie jiao, a banned religious movement. On February 9, 2018, the Linshu County People’s Court sentenced Wang to three and a half years in jail under Article 300 of the Chinese Criminal Code, which punishes those active in a xie jiao.

We do not know in which cases of which refugees the Chinese agents intervened, and whether the case of Wang Xiumei was included. Yet, we know that under the agreement with Switzerland, Chinese Public Security agents were involved in cases of asylum seekers other than Tibetans and Uyghurs, and we know that China continuously tries to prevent members of The Church of Almighty God from obtaining asylum abroad.

The agreement between China and Switzerland was due for renewal on December 8, 2020. It is unclear whether it has been secretly renewed, after the protests of politicians and NGOs, although the head of the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), Mario Gattiker, stated in August that “such arrangements were in the interest of Switzerland, and that Bern—not Beijing—was pushing to renew the agreement.”

One also wonders whether secret agreements parallel to the one signed with Switzerland exist with other countries, without having been leaked to independent media or NGOs. That Chinese Public Security agents may roam free in democratic countries, interview asylum seekers, and work with local authorities to send victims back to their executioners is clearly intolerable. Wherever it happens, it should be stopped.

Picture: Embassy of China in Bern, Switzerland

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