Requests for asylum in Israel by Georgian citizens can now be rejected by an expedited procedure formulated by the Ministry of Interior's Population and Immigration Authority, which has received the backing of Israel's Foreign Ministry and its attorney general. The reasoning behind their support of the policy is that Georgia is a safe country and there is no reason not to repatriate its citizens.
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Nevertheless, according to the UN Refugee Convention, the expedited procedure cannot be used to reject applications for asylum that do not specifically cite the general situation in Georgia as the reason for the request, but rather mention fears of individual persecution.
The population authority requested the Foreign Ministry’s opinion following a spike in the number of asylum applications by Georgian citizens. Last year, there were some 3,700 requests, compared to 730 the year before, and only 27 in 2014.
Population department officials believe that Georgians are trying to take advantage of the logjam of asylum requests in Israel so they can work in the country. Investigation of an asylum request can be protracted and applicants are permitted to work in Israel until there is a formal rejection of the application.
Citizens from Ukraine sent in the largest number of requests for asylum in Israel last year, with 6,800 applications. This situation led the Interior Ministry's population department to make the same request for an opinion from the Foreign Ministry, allowing it to expedite rejections of these individuals. That issue is still under discussion.
More than 22,000 asylum applications are now awaiting disposition.
“Over the past months we have seen a new phenomenon, which is increasing, that of ‘asylum tourism,’" the population authority declared in a statement on Sunday. "Thousands of citizens of Georgia arrive in Israel and immediately apply to the unit for asylum-seekers and file an application for political asylum for the purpose of receiving a permit that will allow them to legally work in Israel, due to non-enforcement, as long as their asylum application is under review."
The statement added that the backlog of unprocessed asylum requests "prevents [the authority] from handling genuine requests of political asylum-seekers.”
Interior Minister Arye Dery has directed the Population and Immigration Authority to process applications from Georgian citizens more quickly. Dery also instructed that work visas from Georgian citizens who come into Israel as tourists and subsequently apply for political asylum be temporarily withheld.
The authority “will enforce the law on prosecuting employers who hire tourists who have filed asylum requests, even if their request is still under review,” the statement said.
In 2016, about 5,700 citizens from Ukraine and about 3,500 Georgians were sent back to their home countries immediately after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
In 2011, under pressure from Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party who is now defense minister, the government waived the advance visa requirement for citizens of Ukraine; in 2014, the requirement was also lifted for citizens of Georgia. Citizens of both countries can thus now obtain their visas at the airport upon arrival in Israel.
In response to queries from Haaretz, MKs from Yisrael Beiteinu were critical of the population authority’s new policy. Robert Ilatov, the party's floor leader, said that the correct way to deal with immigration problems is “through better enforcement by the Interior Ministry and authorities associated with the issue, and not by creating a situation whereby tourists who get on a plane to Israel find themselves uncertain as to whether they will be allowed to enter Israel after they have spent a good deal of money on tickets and vacation packages."
Ilatov continued, "To this must be added the damage to Israel as a tourist destination and the accompanying economic implications. In addition, Israeli citizens who want to host friends and relatives from these countries suffer."