The hardest moment of his 12 years in Israel, says Oleg Vahtangov, was three years ago, "when they jailed me on Tisha B'Av." Vahtangov, 37, who was born in Georgia but lacks citizenship anywhere, was summoned to a meeting at the Interior Ministry in the summer of 2003, at the end of which he was arrested. He spent nine - utterly superfluous - months in jail. Why superfluous? Because there is nowhere to deport him anyway. While in jail, he lost what little property he had acquired over a decade in the country.
He speaks without rancor about the arrest, as about the rest of his troubles. He recounts with pride that he became the leader of the foreign workers' wing in prison, saw to its order and cleanliness and even organized activities. In the same uncomplaining tone, Vahtangov says that he thinks a lot about the 13 years he lost in Israel. "I haven't had any joy in life. I have no family, I have no wife, I have no children and the years are passing. But I look forward," he says.
The reason he does not get married is that he is in love, but with an Orthodox Jew. Until he converts, he cannot be with her; so long as he has no status here, they won't let him convert. In his numerous efforts over the years to secure legal status in Israel, he did actually enter into a fictitious marriage, but it didn't last, he says, because the woman wanted to consummate the marriage. "I didn't sell my soul for paperwork," he says.
In the late 1990s he completed a conversion program in Ashdod. Since then he has lived as an observant Jew, first in Gan Yavne and now in Netanya.
The organization Refugees International estimates that there are 11 million people around the world who lack citizenship for various reasons. Vahtangov belongs to a group of people stranded by the collapse of the Soviet Union - former Soviet citizens who were not home when the new states were established, and therefore did not receive citizenship there. Nor were they granted standing anywhere else. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are several dozen such people in Israel.
When one of them is arrested, he usually spends a long time in jail, until the state is persuaded it has nowhere to deport him. Then he is released, but not given status, forcing him to support himself by working illegally. The UNHCR handles 20 such cases, but its mandate to help them is limited. Vahtangov applied to the UNHCR three years ago, but was denied refugee status because he was not being persecuted in his country of residence.
Some of the stateless people from the former Soviet Union came to Israel as immigrants. They were here when the new states were formed, so they did not get citizenship there. It later turned out that they had come to Israel using fake documents, so their Israeli citizenship was revoked. Thus they remained without any standing in the world. Such is the case, for example, of S.A., 36, from Tajikistan, who petitioned the administrative court together with Vahtangov to receive residency status in Israel.
In January 2005, Vahtangov and two other former Soviet citizens petitioned the Tel Aviv Administrative Court to compel the state to grant them permanent residency. "It is indisputable that this situation, in which people reside in Israel in limbo without any right, is unsatisfactory," wrote the judge, Dr. Amiram Binyamini, in his verdict from May 2005. But the state argued that it is working to grant the petitioners standing in their countries of origin, Georgia and Tajikistan, and requested six months. Since then nothing has changed, yet none of the petitioners has been granted standing.
This past January, the three petitioned the administrative court again. Their lawyer, Oded Feller, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, argued that "citizenship is an essential component in human identity and human dignity," therefore denying somebody citizenship is in effect "cruel punishment that condemns him to a life of poverty."
Feller noted that Israel has no procedure for legalizing the status of people without citizenship. He asked the court to compel the state to establish a process akin to the one for granting refugee status.
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