Israel Might Summarily Reject Asylum Requests by Ukrainians, Georgians

The past two years have seen a surge in asylum requests by Ukrainians and Georgians, helped by the fact that citizens of both countries can enter Israel without a visa.

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Illustrative photo shows Georgians gathered in Tbilisi in 2012.
Illustrative photo shows Georgians gathered in Tbilisi in 2012.Credit: Shakh Aivazov, AP
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

The Interior Ministry has asked the Justice Ministry to approve a new policy under which asylum requests from Ukrainians and Georgians could be summarily rejected via a fast-track procedure.

The Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority argues that based on the political and security situation in Ukraine and Georgia, most asylum requests from citizens of those countries could be rejected without in-depth scrutiny.

Moreover, the agency is already overwhelmed by asylum requests, so it wants to quickly eliminate those it deems frivolous in order to free up resources to deal with those it deems more serious.

The Justice Ministry hasn’t yet approved the proposal, despite pressure from senior officials at the population authority. Both the authority and the ministry declined to comment on the proposal, though the authority acknowledged that it is seeking ways to reduce the flood of asylum requests.

The past two years have seen a surge in asylum requests by Ukrainians and Georgians, helped by the fact that citizens of both countries can enter Israel without a visa. During the first 10 months of 2016, Ukrainians and Georgians submitted 8,574 asylum requests (5,505 and 3,069 respectively), up from just five in 2013 (four and one, respectively).

In fact, Ukrainians and Georgians now account for the majority of new asylum requests, though the population authority is still dealing with a large backlog of requests filed by Eritreans and Sudanese who entered the country in previous years.

In recent weeks, dozens and sometimes hundreds of Ukrainians and Georgians have descended daily on the authority’s office in south Tel Aviv, which handles asylum applications. There they are given a date for an initial asylum interview, which lasts several hours.

The interviewer then decides whether to invite the applicant back for a more comprehensive interview or recommend rejecting his request. The population authority is authorized to reject applications after the initial interview if the applicant lies about his identity or his claims won’t justify asylum even if they prove true.

If a comprehensive interview is granted, the results are then sent to the interior minister’s advisory committee on refugees. That panel issues a recommendation, which must be approved by either the population authority’s director general (if asylum is denied) or the interior minister (if it is granted). A rejection can be appealed to the courts.

Altogether, this process can take years. And throughout it, the applicant cannot be deported; he is entitled to live and work in Israel.

Many Ukrainians request asylum on the grounds that they have been drafted to fight in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. Others say they come from Crimea, which Russia annexed two years ago. The Georgians generally say they fear political persecution.

In conversations with Haaretz via a Russian-language translator, some admitted that they came to work at Israeli construction sites and heard that applying for asylum was a good way to avoid being deported. The population authority says the surge in asylum requests is due to fixers who bring Ukrainians and Georgians to Israel, find them jobs and tell them to file for asylum.

A ruling by an appellate tribunal in Tel Aviv last week may help the population authority summarily reject asylum requests by Ukrainians. Judge Bafi Tam ruled that draft-dodging or deserting from the Ukrainian army was not sufficient grounds for receiving asylum, since upon returning home the culprits would “at most” face a fine or a prison sentence, and there was no evidence their lives would be in danger.

She therefore rejected appeals by two Ukrainian asylum seekers, saying it was clear from their interviews that this was their only reason for requesting asylum. Tam fined both appellants 3,500 shekels ($910) in court costs and ordered them to leave Israel immediately.

In contrast, an appellate tribunal in Jerusalem ruled two months ago that desertion from the Eritrean army could be enough to justify granting asylum, thereby overruling the population authority’s decision that it wasn’t – a decision the agency had used to summarily reject thousands of Eritrean asylum requests. In that ruling, Judge Elad Azar said the Eritrean authorities viewed deserting from the army as a political act, and the penalties could be exceptionally harsh.

Therefore, he ruled, the population authority must consider each request on its own merits rather than automatically asserting that desertion wasn’t grounds for asylum.

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