Vaccinated Asylum Seekers and Migrant Workers in Israel Struggle to Receive Green Passport

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A woman displaying the official Green Pass that verifies she has received both doses of the COVID vaccine in Israel, at an event in Jerusalem.
A woman displaying the official Green Pass that verifies she has received both doses of the COVID vaccine in Israel, at an event in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

With Israel set to reintroduce its Green Pass system that enables the fully vaccinated to gain access to public spaces, hundreds of inoculated asylum seekers and migrant workers are still unable to receive these so-called green passports.

Almost four months after a Haaretz report revealed that many vaccinated non-Israelis were unable to obtain vaccine verification, the problem still persists. Despite being fully vaccinated, they are unable to attend work or go to restaurants, bars, gyms, synagogues and other public places that require a Green Pass. And with the current resurgence of COVID-19, the need for proper documentation is once again urgent.

However, the same bureaucratic error is stopping asylum seekers and migrant workers from receiving Green Passes. It has even prevented one athlete from competing in elite sporting events.

Between February and April, when Israel sought to inoculate as many adult citizens against the coronavirus as possible, some 20,000 foreign nationals received free COVID-19 vaccinations, with many lining up to receive theirs in south Tel Aviv. The effort was spearheaded by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality and Ichilov Medical Center. While many walked away feeling relieved at having a level of protection that many others globally did not have, most have subsequently been unable to receive the Green Pass – which was obtainable via the Health Ministry website or a specially built app.

Hannah Confino is a volunteer English teacher for the asylum seeker community in Tel Aviv. A number of her students and friends reported that their vaccinations had not been added to the Health Ministry database. Confino said she did some digging and discovered the issue was that many asylum seekers had used their Israeli visa numbers during their vaccine registration (because they didn’t have passports or Israeli identification numbers). The system, however, does not recognize these numbers. In some cases, Health Ministry employees reportedly added numbers and names to the system incorrectly.

Confino’s partner, Adam Yahya, is a survivor of the Darfur genocide in Sudan and sought refuge in Israel 13 years ago. He lives here on a temporary visa. Confino has been trying to get him a Green Pass for several months and said she has called the Health Ministry 20 times and also tried Tel Aviv City Hall as well. 

“They asked me for details that Adam was not given when he did his vaccination and said that without those details, they couldn’t help him,” she said.

Confino is originally from England but has lived and worked in Israel for more than a decade. Through her contacts, she said she managed to speak to someone in the deputy director’s office at Ichilov Hospital. “The woman was very sympathetic and expressed that they tried to do something wonderful for asylum seekers and undocumented people, and feel terrible that their lives and work opportunities have been hampered,” Confino recounted.

The source at Ichilov asked for Yahya’s details in an effort to try to help. Ultimately, the source told Confino they were aware that many people were unable to access their Green Passes and that each incorrect data entry made at the time of the vaccination had to be manually checked and reentered into the system. The source advised Confino to “be patient and wait.” This week, the Health Ministry confirmed to Confino that Bikur Rofeh, a private company, is now responsible for fixing the data input problem. Confino said a source at Bikur Rofeh explained to her that “there is little communication between them and the ministry.”

Non-Israeli citizens waiting in line to receive the Pfizer vaccine in south Tel Aviv earlier this year.Credit: Hadas Parush

Confino added that the Tel Aviv Municipality “was uninterested in helping, even though they enjoyed the positive PR for this joint initiative. Adam went the first week [he was able to get the vaccine]. The media was there and took photos of him. Now that it’s over, everyone is left with the negative impact and consequences of them doing a poor job in executing the initiative.”

Yahya is part of a hip-hop group called the Dream Boys. He often performs or practices in Tel Aviv’s bars and nightclubs. This past weekend, however, he was refused entry from three different venues after security demanded to see his Green Pass.

“When I got the vaccination, I didn’t get a message from them [the Health Ministry]. They didn’t care about me. I have health insurance through Leumit. Even they didn’t get the message. I felt sad,” Yahya said. 

‘I have to push’

Simret Cekele works various jobs to keep her family afloat. Now that the Green Pass is being reintroduced, she’s concerned about getting work or being able to enter her children’s school when it is back in session in September. The pandemic has left her without a permanent job and she finds herself working wherever she can. She said that during the vaccination process, she was given a number to use that was supposed to help her access her Green Pass, but that it is not working. 

“I checked the website and tried using my visa number, but there’s no information about me and my coronavirus vaccine. I don’t think I’m going to give up. I’ll try again and hope they can find it. But I have to push,” Cekele said.

She said some of her friends have been offered the chance to enter Canada as asylum seekers, but can’t accept the opportunity without proof of vaccination.

Green Passes being inspected at the entrance to the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv recently. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Other people Haaretz spoke with said they are being warned that if they don’t present the proof of vaccination soon, they will be out of a job. 

Confino said the toughest part about the issue is that the victims can’t advocate for themselves in Hebrew and sometimes worry about calling the authorities, for fear of damaging their asylum applications. 

D., a competitive long-distance runner who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he is getting a COVID test every five days, despite being doubled jabbed. “They need to make sure I’m clean at practices,” he explained.

He said he had an opportunity to compete in the Olympics and had hoped to participate in a preliminary athletics meeting in London, but couldn’t leave Israel without a Green Pass. When he called up the Health Ministry, he said he was told only Israeli citizens could receive one. 

“Right now, my opportunity to compete in the Olympics has passed. But the next global marathon is in Berlin, in two months’ time [September 26]. If I make a great time there, they’ll see I can make it out of Israel to compete with the world.”

D. currently works two jobs, starting the first at 7 A.M. and finishing the second at 10 P.M. He’s saving up for his trip to the German capital, where he hopes to show off his running skills to the world. First, though, he’ll need that Green Pass.

Haaretz reached out to the Health Ministry for comment, but had not received a response by press time. A spokesperson for Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality said, “Please contact the Israeli Health Ministry as they are responsible for issuing Green Passes for vaccinated individuals.”

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