Amid Israel-Russia Crisis, Jerusalem Denies Entry to Thousands of Russians Due to Spike in Asylum Requests

Asylum applications from Russian nationals spiked to 4,000 in 2019 from just 395 in 2016, Interior Ministry says as it introduces an expedited process to refuse requests

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Russian President Vladimir Putin at an annual news conference in Moscow, December 19, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at an annual news conference in Moscow, December 19, 2019.Credit: Pavel Golovkin,AP
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Israel's Population and Immigration Authority officials said Tuesday that in response to a precipitous rise in the number of Russian citizens applying for asylum in the country, it has refused entry to thousands of Russian tourists.

According to the Interior Ministry agency, asylum applications from Russians rose to 4,000 this year, from just 395 in 2016. Between 2009 and 2012 no asylum requests were submitted by Russians.

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To address the steep increase, around two months ago the immigration authority introduced an expedited process to refuse asylum requests from Russian citizens.

This year, 5,700 Russians were refused entry to Israel at Ben-Gurion International Airport, preventing individuals who might have wanted to ask for asylum from doing so. Last year, according to the authority, 4,355 Russian citizens were turned back.

“The refused entries are our response” to the rise in asylum applications from Russians, Prof. Shlomo Mor Yosef, the director of the Population and Immigration Authority, said at a media briefing in Bnei Brak on Wednesday. “These large numbers of denied entries create disquiet on both sides,” he added. He said his agency’s refusals were justified “90 percent of the time and unjustified 10 percent. We’re not perfect.”

Last week dozens of Israeli tourists and business travelers were delayed at the Moscow airport for as much of six hours before they were permitted to enter the country. The incident came after Russian authorities complained to Israel about the treatment of Russian tourists at Ben-Gurion. Mor Yosef said Russians who were denied entry to Israel “appealed to their authorities because they’re angry.”

People waiting in line at the entrance to the Immigration Authority offices in Bnei Brak on December 25, 2019.
People waiting in line at the entrance to the Immigration Authority offices in Bnei Brak on December 25, 2019.Credit: מוטי מילרוד

The case of Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American woman who was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in Russia on drug charges, has added to the rising tensions with Russia.

Mor Yosef disclosed that last week his agency sent Russia a proposal to improve the entry refusal procedure for both countries. He declined to give any details, but said Israel asked Russia to question Israelis entering Russia in Hebrew at the Russian border and provide them with documents in their language, as Israel does for Russian tourists. Mor Yosef said his agency was waiting for Russia’s response.

The accelerated entry denial process followed the classification of Russia as a safe country, to which its citizens can safely return. The status means the authority can refuse asylum requests without close scrutiny. In the two months since the new protocol was introduced, 180 asylum requests were turned down.

Immigration authority officials attribute the rise in applications to “asylum tourism” on the part of Russians seeking to work in Israel. Asylum seekers cannot be deported until their applications are processed. But under the new system, such requests can be processed within days, rather than months or even years.

“There is an entire industry of citizens from the former Soviet Union entering into Israel. Israel is a paradise for Russian speakers,” Mor Yosef said.

About two years ago a similar expedited examination process was put into place for citizens from Ukraine and Georgia. “We managed to deal with the Ukrainians and the Georgians and now we have begun with the Russians,” he said.

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