Ukrainians Fleeing War Need Social Aid, Not Just Protection From Deportation, UN Official in Israel Says

UNHCR representative says 'no doubt' Israel's latest policy shift on taking in Ukrainian people is 'a step in the right direction,' but calls for more action to ensure their welfare

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Ukrainian refugees at Ben Gurion Airport, Israel last week.
Ukrainian refugees at Ben Gurion Airport, Israel last week. Credit: Ilan Assayag
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

“Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel need to receive social aid from Israel and not just protection from deportation," the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Israel told Haaretz on Wednesday.

“The refugees need social aid right now precisely because of the situation in their homes,” said Damtew Dessalegne, adding that he hopes the Israeli government was working on offering more solutions.

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The government’s new policy, according to which Israel will take in 5,000 non-Jewish refugees, will only provide a tourist visa, which won't grant them access to social benefits, education, or health insurance. This contradicts the UN convention on refugees, to which Israel became a signatory in 1954.

“The announcement that [Interior Minister] Ayelet Shaked made is a step in the right direction, there is no doubt,” said Dessalegne. “There are a number of actions that must be taken to accompany the decision that has been made. I do not believe the decisions are complete. It’s because of the emergency that the policy is announced so quickly."

According to him, "the most significant question is what awaits refugees: Who will receive them, where will they stay what needs will they receive, will their children go to schools and kindergartens, will they have health insurance. We ask decision makers to focus on the needs and responses of refugees and not just the number of incoming refugees."

Damtew Dessalegne, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Israel

He continued: “I am aware of the emotional debate about the numbers, how many Ukrainians are in Israel and how many should we be receiving, taking into account the proportion of Jews and Ukrainians, etc. I don’t believe this is important at this stage. Yes, numbers do matter, but what matters mostly is what should be done for Ukrainians in this country, some of whom were separated from their families. The question is what support is provided to them.”

Dessalegne addressed the arrival of Jews in Israel, an immigration issue, as it is embedded in the country’s laws, and not a refugee issue. Therefore, he said, the two things must be viewed separately.

“Aliyah is an immigration issue, and the fact that it sometimes carries a dimension of a refugee situation doesn’t really matter," said Dessalegne. "It’s good from a viewpoint of defending the refugees for the numbers not to be inflated. When combining immigration with political asylum policy, this does not help to protect the refugees.”

The UNHCR representative described Israel as a high income country that has the resources and the capacity to welcome a relatively manageable number of refugees – those arriving and those already in the country, Eritreans and Sudanese. If needed, he added "the UNHCR can support Israel but the Israeli government must take the initiative.”

He added that UN personnel have held informal talks with Israeli officials, and that a formal request was submitted to the Interior Ministry to act in accordance with the refugee convention.

As for asylum seekers from Africa, Dessalegne believes that the current crisis is a good opportunity for Israel to “revisit old policies” regarding asylum seekers. “What the Ukrainians get in the new policy is similar to what the Eritreans and Sudanese got over the past decade. It’s very important that a situation doesn’t develop where the Ukrainians receive solutions and the Africans are left with nothing. That’s inequality. The right thing to do is to provide the same solutions for Ukrainians and the Africans.”

The UNHCR official explained why Israel's position regarding refugees is different from other Western countries: "Because we understand and respect Israel’s demographic challenges, we tell it that it is not alone, this is something we do for no other Western country in the world.

Wherever we can help in cooperation with other countries, we will help, just as we are helping with resettlement of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, enabling them to receive permanent status and citizenship in Western countries."

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