On the night of August 16, six Ukrainian men found themselves at the border between Russia and Georgia. Five of them were former prisoners from the Kherson region of Ukraine and had been forcibly deported by the Russian military; the sixth was a man from Kharkiv who had come to Russia to pick up his sister. All told, the six would spend 11 days at the Verkhny Lars border crossing as the guards refused to let them into Georgia without explaining why. The ex-inmates are now in Tbilisi, awaiting documents to let them return to Ukraine, while their companion has already left. Meduza spoke to the men about their experiences in Russian custody and their days of uncertainty in limbo between Russia and Georgia.
When Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, 47-year-old Oleksii was stuck in a Kherson prison, serving time for burglary. Russian forces occupied part of the Kherson region in early March 2022. The following fall, not long before Russia lost control of the area, the occupation administration deported about 2,500 inmates from local prisons. Most of them were sent to prison colonies in southern Russia.
Oleksii recounted to Meduza how he and his fellow prisoners were loaded into police vehicles and driven to a detention facility in the annexed Crimea. From there, they were taken to a prison colony in Krasnodar, where they were repeatedly beaten and interrogated for about two weeks.
“They asked me provocative questions, like how I felt about the war and whether I planned to go fight [with the Ukrainian military, after release from prison]. That led to an altercation, and I ended up back at the detention center,” Oleksii said.
On July 28, 2023, at the end of his 4.5-year sentence, Oleksii was released. Right after leaving the prison, however, he was arrested again, this time by regional migration authorities. They brought him to a police station, where he was charged with a felony for illegal border crossing, since his prison release certificate said that he’d served his sentence in the Kherson region, not Krasnodar. Next, a Russian court fined him 2,000 rubles ($21).
“After that, I was taken to a migration center, where they asked more questions about the war and where I planned to go now that I’d been released. Three weeks later, six of us [former inmates from Ukraine] were handcuffed, put in a GAZelle van, and driven to the border between Russia and Georgia,” Oleksii told Meduza.
At the Georgian border, only one of the six men was allowed through passport control; the rest were instructed to go to “Office No. 333” and talk to the officer on duty. The officer asked the former inmates about where they were coming from, where they were going, and how long they planned to stay in Georgia. Then he asked where the sixth member of their group had gone. (Oleksii doesn’t know how he had guessed they were a group of six.) Ultimately, the sixth man was found and returned to the passport control despite having already passed it.
According to Oleksii, it wasn’t until 4:00 a.m. that they were given a decision. The officer on duty told them that they weren’t allowed to enter Georgia, due to a section of the law on the “legal status of foreign nationals and stateless persons.” “Apparently, we didn’t provide enough information about ourselves, and we posed a threat to the Georgian people,” said Oleksii. “He said that this form [a border crossing denial certificate] would allow us to go back to Russia. We told him that we weren’t going back.”
The men in the group spent their first two nights in the buffer zone between two state borders at Verkhny Lars, under the open sky. The weather was fine in the daytime, Oleksii told Meduza, but at night it got chilly. Soon, they managed to find a couple of mattresses and a small unoccupied room in a checkpoint building, where they started sleeping in shifts. Oleksii says that only Russian mobile service was available. A few times a day, they would come closer to the Russian border to call their families or human rights workers.
After three or four days, some men in civilian clothing showed up and tried to abduct one of us. After that, the [Georgian border guards] put us all in one room with a security guard, closer to the offices where people go through passport control, and only let us outside if we were supervised.
‘These documents should have been enough’
The plainclothes agents’ target was Mykhailo, a 40-year-old from Kharkiv. He had never been to prison and ended up with the former inmates by mistake.
On May 31, Mykhailo had flown from Germany to Sochi to pick up his sister, who lives in Russia, and bring her back to Europe, he told Meduza. At the airport, he was required to sign a statement that he supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Ukrainian territories. When he refused, he was taken to a separate room, where officers beat him before driving him to a police station in the city.
The next day, a Sochi court officially arrested Mykhailo for 15 days. “When I was released, I was met once again by police officers, and the whole thing repeated — three more times. I spent a total of 58 days in a detention center, just because I didn’t want to sign those papers,” Mykhailo told Meduza.
When he was released for the fourth time, he was met by migration officers instead of regular police. They asked him to show his migration card and passport, and ordered him to come with them. “They took me to the district police station on Gorky Street, and then to a court, which ordered my deportation, since I didn’t have my migration card, which I had lost,” he recalled.
He was then moved to a migration center in Krasnodar. After spending 17 days there, he was sent to the Georgian border, along with the five former inmates from Ukraine.
We were banned from entering Georgia for reasons that were unclear, despite the fact that all of my documents were in order. I have a Ukrainian ID card, a foreign passport, and a residence permit in an E.U. country. Any one of these things should have been enough to let me pass freely across the border. Especially since I only needed to go through Georgia for transit.
According to Mykhailo, none of the other five Ukrainians held at the border planned to stay in Georgia, nor could they get any explanation as to why they couldn’t cross the border.
“We tried to explain that it was unprecedented not to let citizens of a friendly country like Ukraine across the border,” Mykhailo said, adding:
I don’t know why we were denied entry. Maybe it was because [the other five Ukrainians] were former convicts. But the fact is that prisoners were allowed across the border both before us and after us. After us, a guy with an old-form Ukrainian passport was let through. It’s unclear what we had done to deserve this.
The Georgian border guards told the group that they had contacted the Ukrainian consulate in Tbilisi, but no one from the consulate came to Verkhny Lars. Mykhailo tried to call the consulate himself, but to no avail. One of the mission’s numbers was constantly busy, he said, while no one ever answered the other.
On August 22, “some comrades” — possibly Russian FSB agents — tried to shove Mykhailo into a vehicle to drive him off towards the Russian border. “They said I had been sent there by mistake. But thanks to our guys [the former inmates] and the Georgian border officers, they couldn’t round me up,” Mykhailo said, adding that after the incident the border guards kept the Ukrainians “under their wing.”
Five days later, the supervisor on duty at the Georgia checkpoint called the whole group into his office and asked them to say on camera that they were declining further “protection” from the Georgian border authorities. “After that, we were let through the border in five seconds,” Mykhailo said.
‘The ECHR complaint is what did it’
According to the Georgian authorities, the decision to let the six Ukrainians enter the country came when officials learned that one of the former prisoners had run out of his HIV medication. On top of that, according to Mykhailo, in the 11 days that they spent at Verkhny Lars, one of them had two asthma attacks.
In a statement, the Georgian Interior Ministry said that
the Georgian side immediately informed the Ukrainian mission in Georgia about the Ukrainians citizens at the border with Georgia, which clarified that Ukraine needed to perform lengthy procedures to solve this issue. For this entire time, the Georgian side was awaiting a decision from the Ukrainian side.
In light of the fact that one of the Ukrainian citizens at the border experienced health complications, the Georgian side decided to allow them to enter Georgia, and they will wait here for the appropriate procedures to conclude.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Georgia has not commented on the situation. However, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry told the human rights organization UnMode that it couldn’t assist the men held at the border promptly because it was in the process of verifying their identities.
The head of UnMode Aidana Fedosik told Meduza that the Georgian authorities’ decision to let the six Ukrainians into the country may have been accelerated by the fact that her organization had submitted a report to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). According to Fedosik, the body sent a response the next day, saying it would consider the complaint and had already asked the Georgian authorities to file a decision by August 31.
“That gave us hope that Georgia would decide to let them in, at least to avoid attention from the ECHR. I think that those health problems were just an official pretext. But in reality, they needed to respond to the ECHR, and that’s what did it,” she said.
Fedosik also said deportation of Ukrainian prisoners is a fairly common practice for Russia. UnMode began working on such cases after the start of the full-scale war. According to Fedosik, after inmates from Ukraine are released, they often end up in court, since technically they’re in Russia illegally. At that point, they’re sent to temporary detention centers for foreign citizens, where they sometimes spend months.
If an ex-convict has at least a Ukrainian domestic passport, he can legally enter Georgia, Fedosik says. UnMode hasn’t yet seen any similar cases of Ukrainian citizens having difficulties at the Georgian border.
UnMode’s human rights workers were also in contact with Mykhailo and his fellow travelers. The organization’s staff members were waiting for the men at the Georgian border, Fedosik told Meduza.
We always hand out information about our organization and ask [the travelers] to say they’re not just going off into the wild. Georgian border guards know us as well. The problem, as a rule, isn’t with crossing the border. It comes later, when they have trouble getting the so-called “white passport” quickly.
Ukrainian consulates began issuing temporary identification cards after February 2023, when the country passed a law that residents of the occupied territories could not receive a foreign passport without a certificate of maintaining Ukrainian citizenship. These certificates, however, could only be obtained in migration offices in the occupied parts of Ukraine, which was effectively impossible for people who had already left.
The reason for the law was that the Ukrainian government was, and remains, unable to confirm the identities of people who lived on occupied territories, since it cannot access local databases. Ukrainian State Migration Service head Serhiy Gunko had this to say about the situation:
The State Migration Service’s goal is not to discredit displaced people and people registered in the occupied territories. We simply have no way of verifying their information. On one hand, we’re required to verify this information. On the other hand, we don’t have the right to require additional documents, or to refuse to issue documents. This issue has not been regulated.
We’ve been cornered — and we’re doing everything we can. Essentially, we made the decision about additional documents at our own risk, since we understand that there will be legal complaints, criticism, and so on. It isn’t us who should be answering questions, but the Cabinet of Ministers, the Verkhovna Rada, the National Security and Defense Council — those who have the power to resolve this issue with a single legislative act.
In other words, if a Ukrainian from the occupied territories has no documents verifying their identity, they must apply for a “white passport” at the Ukrainian embassy. This will allow them to return to Ukraine, but not to enter another country. “But now this takes a long time; so when Ukrainians say they’re just passing through, the Georgian [border guards] think, ‘We know what that means,’” Aidana Fedosik told Meduza.
In her view, both Ukraine and Georgia must act urgently to address the gaps in their migration laws:
We’ve proposed [to Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry] that they confer a special status on former prisoners who were forcibly deported to the aggressor country. This applies to a good number of people who spent months waiting for the documents they needed to return to Ukraine. They’re not refugees, and they’re not requesting humanitarian visas; they’re victims of war crimes. The majority of them want to return home. They could be given some interim status that would make it easier for them to be registered in Georgia and get the documents they need to leave for Ukraine quicker.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has not yet announced any plans to simplify the procedure for letting Ukrainians from the occupied territories return to the country. Meduza reached out to the agency for comment, but got no response.
As of September 7, Oleksii was still in Georgia, trying to figure out his next steps. He has a foreign passport, so unlike the other four former prisoners in his group, he doesn’t need to start his paperwork from scratch. Human rights advocates from UnMode have leased an apartment to the men and are helping them with money, as are their relatives from Ukraine.
According to Oleksii, the former inmate with HIV has “split” from the rest of the group. “As far as I’ve heard, he’s doing fine. He even managed to find a job in Georgia while he waits for his documents,” Oleksii said. No one from the Ukrainian Embassy contacted any of the men in the group.
Meduza was initially in contact with Mykhailo, but eventually he stopped responding. The phone number he had been using to communicate with Meduza’s correspondent has been disconnected, possibly because he finally returned to Ukraine. Human rights workers from UnMode couldn’t reach him, either.
English-language version by Sam Breazeale