In Unusual Step, Israel Deported Ukrainians to Belarus During the Coronavirus Crisis

Israel didn't have the authority to expel foreigners living in the country illegally to a third country, lawyer says, decrying an 'extraordinary and extremely serious measure'

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Illustration: People at a Refugee Status Determination station set up by the Population and Immigration Authority in Bnei Brak in 2019.
Illustration: People at a Refugee Status Determination station set up by the Population and Immigration Authority in Bnei Brak in 2019. Credit: Moti Milrod
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

During the height of the coronavirus crisis last year, Israel deported five Ukrainian citizens who were living in Israel to Belarus, on the assumption that they would find their way back home on their own.

Sources in the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority said the repatriation to a third country, which took place in April 2020, was exceptional and possibly unprecedented.

The five were initially supposed to board a plane from Israel to Minsk, and from there to continue to Kyiv on a connecting flight. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ukraine shut its borders to air traffic and all flights were canceled.

Nevertheless, the Interior Ministry decided to go ahead with the deportation process; the Ukrainians were flown to Minsk and each given $100 for train fare to Kyiv. Two other Ukrainians who were supposed to be expelled refused to board the flight, and remained in an Israeli prison until they were deported.

After she was contacted by one of the Ukrainians who refused to board the plane, attorney Tal Steiner, the head of legal affairs at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, sought information on the deportations from the authority on the day of the flight. In her April 26, 2020 letter, Steiner called the move an “extraordinary and extremely serious measure.” She added that Israel didn’t have the authority to expel foreigners living in Israel illegally to a third country and put the burden on them to find their own ways home.

Given the spread of COVID-19 at the time, the expulsion order was particularly grave, Steiner wrote. “During this state of emergency, when a citizen is being deported to a country foreign to them with no certainty that it will accept them on its territory – and especially Belarus, which as far as we know is not taking adequate measures against the coronavirus pandemic – could cause serious harm to the detainee’s freedom and health. As such, it is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement to which Israel is bound by international law,” Steiner wrote.

In response, Shonit Shachar, the legal adviser to the immigration agency, said the deportation was being carried out in coordination with the Ukrainian and Belarusian consulates, and that anyone who declined to be flown to a third country would remain in prison in Israel until another method of repatriation could be found.

Another Ukrainian woman who refused to board the plane claimed that she had a health condition that precluded overland travel and asked to be flown directly to Ukraine. In an appeal against her continued imprisonment, she claimed that rail traffic between Belarus and Ukraine had been suspended, rendering the agency’s offer ineffectual.

The immigration agency said in a reply to the appeal that deportations by land were not exceptional, and are routine between Israel and the neighboring countries of Jordan and Egypt.

In a statement, it clarified that “Under the law, there is no obligation for an expulsion via airplane, and certainly not by a direct flight, but that it can be done via a connecting flight or in conjunction with other means of transportation that ensures the deportee arrives safely to their country. Whether the deportation is carried out by air or by other means, the government certainly covers the entire cost.

"This method has received the approval of the courts in a legal proceeding before the Central District Administrative Court. As for the issue [of the deportations] during the month of April 2020, in view of flights to the country of destination being suspended, it was decided to a combination of means of transportation.“

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