Fingerprinted, Jailed and Deported 'Like Criminals': Israel Is Turning Away Tourists From the Former Soviet Union

Abusive interrogators, prolonged incarceration in small cells and then expulsion. In recent years, thousands of would-be tourists from the former Soviet Union who tried to enter Israel have been sent home under humiliating conditions

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Nikita Weisgeim, 6. After a 14-hour nightmare in Israel, he and his family were put on a plane back to Kiev.
Nikita Weisgeim, 6. After a 14-hour nightmare in Israel, he and his family were put on a plane back to Kiev.
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

At the end of March, Tatyana Makarova, a 42-year-old math teacher from Moscow, decided on the spur of the moment to take advantage of the spring break from school to visit Israel. She booked a hotel room in Tel Aviv, bought a plane ticket and looked forward to spending her time between the beaches of the “city that never stops” and the holy places in Jerusalem. Before leaving, she made sure she had the documents that are required when entering Western countries: a return ticket to Russia and confirmation of employment from her place of work. Everything was ready for a perfect vacation.

But at passport control at Ben-Gurion International Airport, she was asked about a previous visit to Israel. At that time, some years back, she had spent a day in Eilat after a trip to Egypt, then returned to Egypt and from there flew back to Russia. Makarova was pulled out of line at the airport and taken to a side room, where she was questioned by border-control officials. The interrogators claimed she had been to Israel twice previously, in 2008 and 2009, but she insisted she visited only once, in 2010. (It later turned out that she had been in the country once, but in the winter of 2009.)

“And then it started,” she relates in a phone interview with Haaretz. “The girl, who was questioning me in Russian, said: ‘You are lying.’ She started to throw the documents I gave her at me. ‘That’s it, get out of here, you’re wasting my time. Think again, and when you remember, come back and tell me.’”

Adds Makarova, “When I went back to her the second time, it all started again. She started to throw documents around and shouted, ‘You’re lying, you’re cheating, you’ve come here for another reason, not for sightseeing.’”

Tatyana Makarova. “You’re lying,” the interrogator shouted at her. “You’re cheating, you’ve come here for another reason, not for sightseeing.”

Makarova doesn’t know the names of the woman who questioned her initially or of the man who continued the interrogation after she’d been thrown out of the room a second time, as neither wore identifying tags. She informed her mother and sister in Moscow that she’d landed in Israel but had been detained at the airport. After a time she, along with four other women from the former Soviet Union, was taken in a vehicle with bars on its windows and a flashing light to a detention site that the border control officials called an “immigration facility.”

“They took all our personal belongings, the phones, everything,” she recounts. “We were given a toothbrush and toothpaste, no towels or anything. I was there from March 31 until April 3, and then deported. I can’t say exactly how long I spent there because I didn’t have a watch. They didn’t explain anything. I was in a small cell with bars on the windows – about 20 square meters – with another eight women. In the cell opposite us was a woman with two small children.”

A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority stated: “Tatyana Makarova claimed that she arrived for tourism only and that she didn’t know anyone in Israel. That claim and other claims she made turned out to be incorrect.” The PIA told Haaretz, without going into too much detail, that the fact that she supplied false information and refused “to cooperate” led to her being denied entry to Israel.

Tatyana vehemently denies the allegations. She says she told the interrogators that she knows one couple in Israel but that they didn’t know she was coming for a visit. She suggested that the immigration officials call the couple to verify her account, but they ignored her request. She also wonders what “other claims” turned out to be incorrect, according to the PIA.

She was able to cancel her hotel reservation for free, but the money she paid for the flight was lost. She received her suitcase back two months after the abortive trip.

Surge in expulsions

Tatyana Markova’s case is not unusual. In recent years, hundreds of men and women from the FSU have been sent home shamefully when they tried to enter Israel. Many report that they were humiliated by passport control officials, and speak of a traumatic experience involving incarceration in a facility that is no different from a prison.

After Israel and Russia signed an agreement in 2008 eliminating the need for their citizens to obtain entry visas prior to visiting the other country, Israel signed similar accords with other countries of the FSU – Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia – and a slightly different agreement with Moldova. Most of the agreements were initiated by MKs and ministers from the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose base constituency is Russian-speaking, and they helped to boost tourism – but other factors have come into play as well.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of tourists from Russia, for example, surged from 55,000 a year on average in the early 2000s, to 203,000 in 2008, 228,000 in 2009 (a year after the agreement was signed) and about 297,000 on average from 2015 to 2017. Tourism from Ukraine followed a similar pattern: from an average of 27,000 visitors a year between 2000 and 2005, to 55,000 in 2010 (on the eve of the signing of the agreement) and 130,000 annually from 2015 to 2017.

'They took all our personal belongings, the phones, everything. I was in a small cell with bars on the windows with eight other women.'

Tatyana Makarova

However, the surge in tourism from these countries has been accompanied by a far more drastic rise in the number of people from the FSU who find themselves expelled from Israel even before they have trod on its soil. Thus, in 2009, 41 Ukrainians were refused entry to Israel, whereas last year, following a steady increase in the interim, 8,560 tourists from Ukraine were sent home after being detained at passport control.

In the case of Georgia, the number of those denied entry soared from seven in 2009 to 3,645 last year. Two tourists from Belarus were not allowed into Israel in 2009, but last year 252 were sent home from the airport. As for Russia, 1,477 would-be tourists from that country were refused entry in the first five months of 2018 alone – more than in all of 2017, and more than seven times as many as in 2009.

Haaretz obtained these figures from the population authority under the Freedom of Information Law. According to the PIA, the surge in the number of people denied entry must be seen in relation to the overall increase in the number of tourists from the countries in question. However, as the data show, the rise in the number of those refused entry is proportionally far higher than the uptick in the number of tourists.

“We are in ongoing contact with the Israeli side about this issue, and we are holding meetings with the Foreign Ministry,” says Dmitry Alushkin, the spokesman of the Russian Embassy in Israel. “The most recent meeting on the subject took place about a month ago.” The embassy, he adds, receives explanations regarding specific cases of denial of entry, “but those clarifications do not always satisfy us. We are especially concerned about recurring complaints by Russian citizens of rude and improper treatment of them bordering on abuse.”

While the embassy understands “Israel’s sensitivity on the subject of migration security,” Alushkin says, “we think that it is necessary to preserve the delicate balance that will make it possible to uphold human rights and the rights of our citizens in an absolute way.”

The Ukrainian consul in Israel, Vladislav Strukov, is even more trenchant in his response to Haaretz on this subject. Complaints about the increasingly negative attitude of Israel passport control officials began to mount in 2014, he notes, and in light of their sheer number there seems to be no doubt regarding their credibility.

There are several recurring themes, Strukov says, including “a biased and rude attitude [by border control personnel]; verbal abuse and exaggerated psychological pressure during questioning; denial of basic human needs such as water, food and toilet facilities during the interrogation or while making those being held wait for a decision; failure to provide medical treatment when necessary; ignoring of facts and documentation that confirm the reason for the individual’s visit; and a ban on contacting the consul or a lawyer.”

A detention facility at Ben-Gurion International Airport, where the Weisgeims spent a night.

Most of the complainants, he says, “report a baseless refusal for denial of entry to Israel, which is generally accompanied by a permanent prohibition on returning to Israel.”

Autistic boy in a cell

The population authority and the Foreign Ministry refused to comment on the diplomats’ complaints or to respond to more general questions from Haaretz concerning treatment of tourists, lack of medical care, rudeness and issues involving incarceration at the airport. However, the story of the Weisgeim family, first published by Alla Gavrilov on the Israeli Russian-language site, is illustrative. The family – Yekaterina, 31, her husband Andrei, 34, and their son Nikita, an autistic boy of 6 who suffers from cognitive developmental disability – landed at Ben-Gurion airport at about 1 P.M. one day in April. According to the mother, they planned to visit friends, take Nikita to an Israeli psychiatrist for a medical opinion, and visit the Christian holy places – “to pray, maybe it would help.”

The PIA says that the family provided contradictory information to border control personnel, giving rise to “suspicion of [intentions of] settling and working illegally” in Israel. According to the family, however, their “sin” was having friends in Israel, two of whom even came to the airport to meet them. During the questioning, Andrei mentioned some of their names, but the border control personnel countered that he was “mixing up the friends.” Haaretz spoke to one of the couple’s friends, who confirmed their account and said she has known them for several years and visited them many times in Kiev.

At 5 A.M., after a 14-hour nightmare, the family was put on a plane back to Kiev after being refused entry. During that entire time, the child was not examined by a physician or psychiatrist, and despite the parents’ repeated pleas, they were forced to spend most of the period in closed spaces (interrogation rooms, waiting rooms and finally in a detention facility), which caused Nikita serious emotional distress. Since the incident, his mother explains in a phone conversation, he has been taking a particularly high dosage of the antipsychotic medication Risperidone.

'We asked to go outside but they wouldn’t let us. Nikita started to scream, to cry, to pound on the door.'

Yekaterina Weisgeim

When the family was pulled out of passport control and taken to an interrogation room, the boy “started to go on a rampage,” Yekaterina relates. “He expected that we would be let out of the room already and he started to grab things. I said I was sorry and that I could not control the child. They told me to leave the room with Nikita, and for an hour or an hour and a half they questioned my husband while we walked around in circles.”

During the interrogation, she says, the border control personnel became abusive. The interrogator, who spoke Russian, said to Andrei, “I would burn my Ukrainian passport. I am ashamed of my country [Ukraine]. Ninety percent of the people who come from there are either prostitutes or illegal workers.”

Subsequently, Yekaterina adds, another agent, from the adjacent cubicle, joined in: “Why do you khokhly [a term of insult to ethnic Ukrainians] come here? In Ukraine we are zhids [a derogatory term for Jews] for you!”

A spokesperson for the PIA said about this case: “Following the decision to deny them entry, the father of the family started to express himself in an unworthy, aggressive manner.” But Yekaterina insists that her husband lost his cool in reaction to the insults hurled at him by the officials.

The family was taken to a waiting room, which Yekaterina describes as being windowless, asked to identify their luggage and driven in a minibus with grilles on its windows to a detention facility. After about 10 minutes – during which Nikita frolicked with relief in the facility’s courtyard, Yekaterina recalls – they were incarcerated in a cell with a metal door and a small, barred opening. It was around 5 P.M., and they would spend the next 11 hours in that confined space. Their cellphones were confiscated, but Yekaterina, who burst into tears, managed to persuade the guards to leave them their tablet device in order to occupy Nikita.

The Weisgeims.

“In the end, Nikita became so hysterical that he wouldn’t use the tablet or anything else,” she relates. “We asked to go out but they wouldn’t let us. Nikita started to scream, to cry, to pound on the door.” At about 8 P.M., the family was allowed to go outside for about 20 minutes to get some air. Afterward they were locked up again.

“At no stage of the interrogation,” the PIA says, “did the issue of the child’s health come up, and no claims were raised about the subject.”

For her part, Yekaterina tells a different story. “I told them from the start that my boy was sick and that I could not control his behavior.”

When the Weisgeims arrived back in Kiev they lodged a complaint about their treatment at Ben-Gurion airport, have received no response. In any event, even if they were allowed to enter Israel, they have no intention of ever visiting again.

Forbidden visit

Olga Ambartsumova, a 40-year-old psychologist from Moscow, was also denied entry to Israel, but has no alternative but to fight for her right to reenter: Her 14-year-old son lives in the country with her former partner, who is Israeli. For years, she says in a phone conversation, she came to Israel regularly, at first to fight for custody of her son and afterward to visit with him. But the last time she arrived at Ben-Gurion, in May 2015, she was not permitted to enter. The reasons the Israeli officials later gave, in writing, were “prevention of illegal immigration” and “considerations of public security, public safety or the public order.”

'What I can’t live with is that I promised my son to come, and he waited, and as a result the relations between us were totally destroyed.'

Olga Ambartsumova

“I was fingerprinted like a criminal,” says Olga. “They took everything they could, but I had an extra phone for every eventuality, and from the toilet I managed to call my lawyer and tell him that I was being detained and that I didn’t understand what was happening.”

Israeli lawyer Eli Gervits, who had represented Olga in the custody battle, faxed the border control authorities the 2011 decision of the Rishon Letzion Family Affairs Court stating that she can visit her son in Israel four times a year, twice at her ex-partner’s expense, twice out of her own pocket. The fax didn’t help. Nor did the fact that Olga had visited Israel numerous times before and never tried to stay in the country. The Israeli officials were equally unimpressed by the fact that Olga’s current partner and baby were waiting for her back in Moscow.

Like others who were refused entry, Olga says she was also subjected to humiliating treatment. For example, when she asked for water, border control personnel demanded that she speak in Hebrew (having assumed she knew the language in the wake of her frequent trips to Israel). “In the end, they put me in a cell without giving me anything to drink,” she recalls. “There were a great many people in the cell, which was stifling and dirty. I had an asthma attack and lost consciousness. After my cellmates pounded on the door, I was taken out in bad condition. They didn’t call a doctor for two or three hours, close to the time of the flight, after the attack was over.”

The unpleasant experience at the airport is the least of Olga’s troubles. “I can live with all that,” she says, “but what I can’t live with is that I promised my son to come, and he waited, and as a result the relations between us were totally destroyed. He is not in touch with me now, he thinks I deceived him. I haven’t seen him for more than three years, and I don’t even have telephone contact with him. I am a liar, to him.”

Olga Ambartsumova. “I promised my son to come, and he waited, and the relations between us were totally destroyed. He thinks I deceived him.”

Grevits, who is now representing Olga in a suit against the PIA, explains what led to the fateful mistake at border control. In the early 2000s, Olga and her Israeli partner submitted a request to the PIA to grant her a temporary status in Israel through a process of gradual naturalization. They never married and did not pursue the naturalization process, and after the birth of their son they lived in Moscow. Then came the difficult separation, in the wake of which the father returned to Israel with the child. Despite Olga’s claims that the boy was kidnapped, the Rishon Letzion court ruled that he would live with his father.

Gervits: “Many years after Olga’s attempted naturalization process ended, her former partner came to the Interior Ministry with his new partner. ‘Where is the woman you came with last time?’ he was asked, and he replied, ‘I don’t know, she disappeared.’”

According to the lawyer, the Interior Ministry must have deduced that if the woman disappeared, she was probably in Israel illegally and must be deported, he says: “No one bothered to check and see that she doesn’t live in Israel, and when she arrived, she wasn’t allowed in.”

Earlier this year, when her suit against the PIA was being debated, Gervits wanted to bring her to the hearing. But the PIA demanded a bond of 60,000 shekels (about $17,000) to allow Olga to enter the country. But she didn’t have such a sum.

Gervits: “That’s a world record. I’ve never heard of the PIA asking for that amount of money. Instead of admitting its mistake, the PIA is preventing her from attending the court hearing in her case, in which the PIA is also the defendant.”

According to the PIA, there’s nothing to prevent Olga Ambartsumova from coming to Israel to see her son, but she must do it “in an orderly way.” The authority notes that she did not show the border-control officials the court ruling about her visitation rights, but attorney Gervits denies that, saying that the fax reached them. Although the PIA says that Ambartsumova must arrange her arrival in advance through the Israeli legation in Russia, when she tried to do that, she says, she was asked to deposit a sum that she can’t possibly raise. Concerning the bond, the PIA says that Gervits contacted them “and the subject will be examined.”

“Now I can already talk about it calmly,” Olga says, “but it’s difficult. When I try to wish my son good luck, or just talk to him, I get bad messages from him. He hasn’t spoken to me for four months. I have no idea where he is and what’s happening with him. I wrote Eli Gervits that I don’t even have the opportunity of hearing my son’s voice. The lawyer wrote to the welfare authorities, and the boy replied that he doesn’t need the connection, that he’s lived without me all this time and that he’s all right and he doesn’t understand why I suddenly remembered him.”

Accelerated rejection

A partial explanation for the fact that residents of the FSU are refused entry to Israel is that some of those who arrive do take advantage of the visa agreement to work in the country illegally. There are also Israeli middlemen who help Ukrainians and Georgians submit fictitious requests for political asylum in Israel, and provide them with jobs and lodgings. The requests are eventually rejected, but while their cases are pending, the migrants remain in the country and work. As reported in Haaretz, the PIA last year introduced new procedures by which all requests for asylum by Georgians and Ukrainians can be rejected as part of an accelerated process lasting weeks instead of years. According to the PIA, the number of such requests has plummeted since the new procedure took effect. For example, last year Ukrainian citizens filed more than 7,700 requests to receive refugee status, but fewer than 1,000 such requests were submitted in the first five months of 2018. As far as Haaretz knows, no one has ever received that status.

Still, the middlemen keep trying. Thus, the Russian-language site offers “legal status and employment in Israel.” A page of the site is devoted to requests for status and has phone numbers and an email address for making contact. An email I sent went unanswered, and the phone number listed turned out to belong to Dov Security Group: Sanitation and Manpower. I introduced myself as Xenia, a Ukrainian citizen looking for long-term work in Israel, and was put through to a person named Yaakov.

Yaakov said I should call him ahead of my planned arrival in Israel and promised to meet me at the airport and provide me with lodgings. When “Xenia” asked if she could be granted refugee status, he replied that it was impossible, but added, “If they examine your request for a year or two and you’re here during that period, you can live, work, all legally.” I asked if he could help me submit an asylum request. “Yes, that’s my profession,” said Yaakov, adding that his fee for what he called “lawyer’s services” was $1,500. To allay “Xenia’s” fears, he said that there are some 60,000 Ukrainians in Israel, far higher than the figure of 20,000 which the PIA provided to Haaretz last year.

But the number of such migrants residing in the country for the time being is no consolation for the many visitors whose vacation is ruined and who end up in an interrogation room instead of a hotel lobby. The attitude they encounter at the airport places in doubt the sincerity of the visa agreements that were signed between the countries, and certainly does nothing to further Israel’s image as a hospitable country.

The Foreign Ministry declined to comment, but the PIA stated in response: “The greater the number of tourists who arrive from a particular country, the higher the relative number of entry refusals. Ignoring one part of the equation is a deliberate distortion of reality. Every person who wishes to submit a complaint about treatment can do so through the regular channels. Turning to the media does not constitute an official complaint.”

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