Entry Is Only the First Hurdle: What Is Israel's Policy on Ukrainian Refugees?

Israel announced it will limit on the number of Ukrainian refugees allowed in its territory. Haaretz explains the nuts and bolts of Israel's policy from entry and work permits, to health insurance

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel on Thursday.
Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel on Thursday.Credit: Hadas Parush
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

Israel will allow 5,000 refugees from Ukraine to enter the country for “temporary visits,” Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced on Tuesday, adding that any Ukrainian citizen whose application is approved will be able to receive a temporary visa for three months starting midnight on Saturday.

Haaretz explains what will happen after that, how the new program changes the existing situation and what critics have to say about it.

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What has been the situation so far?

Until now, Ukrainian citizens, who are not Jewish or entitled to make aliyah under the Law of Return, could enter Israel freely if they had a first-degree relative in Israel, meaning a parent, sibling, spouse or child. Ukrainian citizens with second-degree relatives could enter the country after providing a 10,000 ($3,000) shekel deposit. Ukrainian citizens without relatives in Israel could not enter at all, except in exceptional cases. Jewish Ukrainians and descendants and relatives of Jews who have the right to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return could enter freely.

Who can enter Israel under the new program?

Any Ukrainian citizen who is not Jewish or not covered by the Law of Return can submit a request online on the Foreign Ministry’s website, but can only board a plane to Israel once the application has been approved. At the same time, Israelis may apply to invite Ukrainian citizens to Israel but no more than one nuclear family per applicant. These people will be prioritized. Refugees must sign a promise to leave the country at the end of the state of emergency in Ukraine.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaking on Tuesday.Credit: Noam Rivkin Fenton

What are the terms of the residency permit?

Ukrainian refugees will receive only a three-month tourist visa without any social benefits or rights. They will not be allowed to work in Israel, and will have to purchase private health insurance. They will also need to pay for any emergency medical services provided by hospitals. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz was due to raise the issue at the meeting of immigration cabinet on Thursday, where he planned to ask that the government offer refugees health insurance, Haaretz has learned. He has the authority to grant such coverage and has instructed his director general to move forward with a plan, said a source close to Horowitz.

What will happen after the three-month period ends?

The Interior Ministry will reexamine the state of emergency issue and decide then whether to extend protection for the refugees. Shaked said on Tuesday that if the fighting continues, Ukrainians would also be allowed to work in Israel. The government will decide whether to grant them benefits, she added.

Does the quota of 5,000 people include those who have already entered the country?

Yes. According to data from the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, as of Tuesday 2,519 Ukrainians have arrived since the beginning of the war. Thus, Israel will accept in principle only about the same number of new refugees. In practice, based on the present rate of arrivals of about 400 to 500 a day, the quota is likely to have been filled even before the new rules take effect this weekend. As a result, the new program will not really be of any practical impact at all.

At the same time, according to Population Authority figures, some 12,000 Ukrainians who arrived in the country before the war broke out are living in Israel without permits. Israel cannot send them back to their homeland now because of the principal in international refugee law of “non-refoulement,” under which people cannot be deported to a country where their life is at risk.

What happens once the quota is filled?

Ukrainians without a permit will be blocked at the country of departure from boarding flights to Israel. Those who succeed in boarding anyhow will be deported to their country of departure once they land. If they refuse, they will be detained until they agree to leave Israel.

What are the requirements of the UN Convention on Refugees. Is Israel meeting those requirements?

Israel is a signatory to the 1954 UN Convention on Refugees. The first article of the convention prohibits countries from deporting refugees to their countries of origin. Israel declared early on after the outbreak of hostilities that it was freezing enforcement of immigration rules against Ukrainians already in Israel and therefore is meeting that part of the convention.

The convention does not require countries to provide permanent right of residency to refugees, but it does require that refugees be given the right to work, education, health services and freedom of movement. Israel does not meet the terms of this section of the convention. Under the government program, the refugees will have no such rights during their first three months in the country because they are deemed tourists.

Shaked said earlier this week that “at the moment they are coming for a period of one to three months, and they will be able to purchase private health insurance. After two or three months, if they are unable to return to Ukraine, they will get work permits and health insurance, and we will take care of the elderly.”

Why has the plan been criticized?

There are several criticisms of the plan. The first is that in practice, the quota narrows the range of people who until now have been able to enter Israel freely. Ukrainian citizens with first degree relatives in Israel have been able to enter the country without any quota limitations, while Ukrainian citizens with second degree relatives were able to enter Israel upon deposit of a guarantee.

“There is no reason to set a quota for first-degree relatives of Israeli citizens,” attorney Yadin Eilam, who is currently assisting refugees pro bono, told Haaretz. “The current policy leads to situations where for example a mother cannot during the duration of the war bring her children from her first marriage to Israel, or a son cannot bring his parents.”

Criticism has also been voiced against the requirement to have a refugee’s application approved to enter Israel before boarding a flight. Ayelet Oz, executive director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, said earlier this week that “the requirement for advanced registration with the foreign ministry prior to boarding a flight is a de facto way of requiring a visa, which was not a requirement until now. It seems that this is aimed at preventing the Israeli public from witnessing the kinds of scenes we saw at Ben Gurion Airport last week by simply preventing people from boarding flights.”

Another area that has drawn criticism is the decision not to give the refugees health insurance. Dr. Zoe Gutzeit, director of the migrant and refugee program at Physicians for Human Rights, on Thursday asked for clarifications from the Health Ministry on its policy. “Taking a clear stand and providing social support, especially health assistance, to such populations is an integral part of the group protection afforded them and is a moral duty that also has a public health and economic logic,” she wrote.

“The Tel Aviv Appeals Court, which has the authority to hear appeals of Russian and Ukrainian citizens denied entry to Israel, should issue guidance that every appeal of denial of entry will be heard the following day, in order to guarantee the rights and provide immediate justice for those refused entry at the border,” said Tomer Warsha, an attorney who specializes in immigration law.

MK Yulia Malinovsky (Yisrael Beiteinu) has demanded in a letter to the foreign, health and welfare ministers that an appeals mechanism be established specifically for persons denied entry to Israel “within the framework of the public’s fundamental right to knowledge.” Malinovsky, who chairs the special national infrastructure and Jewish religious services committees, served as a mediator between the Interior Ministry and Ukrainian refugees.

Is everyone on the coalition in agreement on the refugee issue?

The issue has caused a political storm. Diaspora Minister Nahman Shai called Israel’s current policies “shameful” during a radio program this week. Shaked replied that “the diaspora minister should focus on the national mission ahead of us to absorb tens of thousands of immigrants, instead of damaging Israel's reputation and undermining its immigration policy. Israel will take in Ukrainian and Russian citizens in vast numbers even in relation to the world. [I] expect ministers to take pride in their country instead of irresponsibly tweeting.”

Bennett has backed Shaked and dubbed her policy “responsible and correct.” On Twitter, he wrote that “Israel will work to take in masses of Jews (without limits) from Ukraine and the region who are eligible to become Israeli citizens under the Law of Return. The policy will also enable us to temporarily host 25,000 Ukrainians until the storm passes.”

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