Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced on Sunday that Ukrainian refugees with family in Israel will be allowed to seek asylum in Israel, even if they are not Jewish themselves. This effectively lifts the 5,000-person cap of non-Jewish refugees Israel had said it was willing to take in.
At a press briefing, Shaked said the government was "relaxing" its policy on Ukrainian refugees "so as not to violate the visa-free [travel] agreement with Ukraine."
Ukrainians with relatives who are Israeli citizens would need to have one of their family members sign a guarantee, which would let them stay with them "for a month or two," Shaked said. Most arrivals from Ukraine who are not eligible for aliyah will be granted a three-month tourist visa.
Last week, Israel announced a quota of 5,000 temporary resident visas for Ukrainians who are not eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The Law of Return enables anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to acquire Israeli citizenship and to immigrate to Israel.
According to a state's response to the Supreme Court, Israel has reached half of its quota of 5,000 Ukrainian refugees who are neither eligible for aliyah nor have family members who are Israeli citizens. The state can take in another 2,500 or so asylum seekers alone.
The new refugee policy for Ukrainians no longer requires that a monetary guarantee be posted on their behalf, but it does require them to commit to leave Israel when the current crisis in Ukraine ends. It also requires those seeking the temporary status in Israel to complete an online application on the Foreign Ministry website and to present proof of approval of their application before they board their flight to Israel.
Since the war began, nearly 4,000 Ukrainians have sought asylum in Israel, and none of them have attained refugee status, Israeli state data shows. A total 3,956 Ukrainians have applied for asylum in Israel since February 24.
Of those, 2,720 were rejected and 657 of them had their cases closed without receiving refugee status. Another 83 people received a different status (as citizens, for instance) or began the process of seeking a different status; and 496 people have not yet received a response to their requests.
There are an additional 20,172 Ukrainians on tourist visas in Israel; for 12,287 of them, the visas are expired. There are also 4,549 Ukrainian foreign workers in the country, only 357 of whom have expired papers. Another 2,284 Ukrainian citizens are in Israel with other documentation.
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The new Interior Ministry criteria for the admission of Ukrainian refugees into Israel, including the 5,000-person cap, were due to go into effect at midnight between Saturday and Sunday, but they have not yet been implemented because the application forms for the entry permits are not yet on the government's websites.
Until they go online, the Interior Ministry’s Population Authority will continue to operate according to the old rules, which require that Israeli relatives of Ukrainian citizens who qualify for a temporary stay in Israel post a financial guarantee of at least 10,000 shekels ($3,100) and commit that the Ukrainians will leave the country within a month.
Applicants with a first-degree relative in Israel – a parent, sibling, spouse or child – are exempt from the deposit requirement.
The foreign and interior ministries have blamed each other for the delay in making the forms available online.
A petition was filed Friday with the High Court of Justice by lawyer Tomer Warsha on behalf of the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, challenging the policy. The Ukrainian embassy in Israel said it was not formally filed on its behalf but that it supported the legal action. Warsha asked the High Court to issue a temporary injunction against the new plan and to hold an urgent hearing on the matter. In the petition, Ambassador Korniychuk claimed that the new policy would violate an agreement with Ukraine in which Israel committed not to require visas of Ukrainians entering Israel.
Warsha said in response to Shaked's Sunday announcement that it was an "important and significant change," but argued it was still illegal and prevents Ukrainians who reside in Israel but are not Israeli citizens from having their relatives seek asylum in the country.
It is estimated that there are more than 4,500 non-Jewish Ukrainians who have already entered Israel, meaning that the arrival of fewer than 450 more, which was expected by Sunday, would fill the quota. In any event, if as a practical matter the new program is not in effect, the new quota does not yet apply.
In 2010, Israel signed an agreement with Ukraine in which the countries consented to allowing the other’s citizens to enter without an advance visa. The agreement was approved by the Israeli cabinet. The court petition claims that only the cabinet can revoke the agreement but that in practice, the new Interior Ministry plan seeks to override the cabinet.
The new policy depriving Ukrainian citizens of the visa waiver constitutes “prohibited discrimination” at a highly difficult time for Ukrainians that almost completely bars them from entering Israel “whether as asylum seekers or for any other reason,” the petition also claims.
The language of the petition states that it was filed at the request of the Ukrainian ambassador, and the embassy confirmed on Saturday that it supports the petition, although on its Facebook page, it said that it had not itself filed the petition.
“We do hope that the decision of the court will be impartial,” the embassy wrote in a Facebook post. “We would salute ... the Israeli Government’s decision to change its policy and like other European nations to embrace Ukrainian refugees, despite their religion or nationality.”