The government will provide non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel with humanitarian aid that includes temporary housing in hotels, basic health insurance and supplies such as clothing and food, as well as day care for children and nursing facilities for the elderly.
Under the program, approved by the cabinet Monday, the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry will be responsible for non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees.
Data from the Population and Immigration Authority show that since the outbreak of fighting in Ukraine, 6,500 Ukrainians not eligible for immigration under Israel’s Law of Return have reached Israel. Officials estimate that all told, about 15,000 are expected to eventually come, for which 15 million shekels ($4.6 million) have been allocated, or about 1,000 shekels a person.
At this stage, Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel get a tourist visa valid for three months, after which they must return to the country they come from. If the war continues after three months, the government will then decide what to do, including the possibility of issuing them work visas.
The health insurance that refugees get will be based on coverage that the state buys from private insurers. In addition, the Welfare Ministry plans to set up a telephone hotline for refugees and provide social services. It will work together with civil society organizations. To help supply the services, the ministry will be recruiting scores of Russian and Ukrainian speakers as social workers.
The ministry says its focus will be on the elderly, children and at-risk youth as well as families with disabled members. They will be entitled to the services provided by the government until they return to their country of origin, or in line with political developments, until they are granted official refugee status or approval to work in Israel.
“This is our Jewish and Israeli moral obligation,” Labor Minister Meir Cohen said on Wednesday. “We view this obligation as a great privilege. I thank the prime minister for assigning me and the Welfare Ministry this task.”
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In addition, Dina Dominitz, head of the Justice Ministry’s National Anti–Trafficking Unit, will be working to prevent economic pressure from forcing refugee women into prostitution.
The unit believes that criminal elements have already begun trying to exploit the refugees’ distress. Officials say there have already been attempts to recruit Ukrainian women and the handicapped to seek refugee status and work in Israel as prostitutes and paid beggars.
The Justice Ministry is acting to identify instances like this and inform victims as they enter the country. The Welfare Ministry will also play a role.
Before the war in Ukraine broke out, there were criminals who, for the purpose of human trafficking, took advantage of Ukrainian travelers’ exemption from getting a tourist visa. According to the Anti-Trafficking Unit, in the last five years a large share of the human trafficking victims arriving in Israel originated in Ukraine, including people forced into prostitution, begging and forced labor.
In 2019, about 450 women from all over the world were refused entry into Israel on suspicion they had been brought to the country to be prostitutes. The number was up from an average of about 200 annually in prior years.
Amnon Shmueli, head of border control at Ben-Gurion Airport, signed off on new regulations Monday that require airlines to bar Ukrainians from boarding flights to Israel unless they have a valid travel visa, immigration visa, official approval from the Population and Immigration Authority, or a diplomatic passport.
The new rules unilaterally violate the terms of an agreement Israel signed with Ukraine in 2010, which exempts both countries’ nationals from needing a visa.
A senior Ukrainian diplomat told Haaretz that Kyiv is weighing whether to cancel the agreement altogether in response. A spokeswoman for Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority said the new regulations are in line with the authority’s policies.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced Sunday that she was expanding the possibilities for Ukrainians to enter Israel. Refugees with relatives in Israel can enter freely, and the quota of Ukrainians not covered by the Law of Return or those without family in Israel was raised to 5,000. The rules require that they show proof they were approved by Israel’s Foreign Ministry to come before they can board a plane.
Since the rules went into force overnight between Monday and Tuesday, Ukrainians without the proper documents have been turned away from boarding flights to Israel.
“In practice, our citizens, wherever they are in the world, haven’t been able to board flights. What more do we need?” a senior Ukrainian diplomat said. When asked whether Israel was the only country taking such a step, he answered: “Israel is a unique country in this sense.”
He pointed to Ireland, which unilaterally canceled visa requirements to Ukrainian nationals at the start of the war. “Israel is the only country that has actually introduced a visa regime,” he said, “while Russian and Belarus nationals continue to enter Israel without visas.”
Andriy Yermak, head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, has criticized Israeli policies. In a Facebook post he wrote, “The recent decisions of the Israeli leadership aimed at restricting the entry of Ukrainians in the country, to put it mildly, cause bewilderment. We view the suspension of the visa-free travel and the introduction of the Interior Ministry’s electronic permit system for Ukrainian citizens to enter Israel as an unfriendly step that needs immediate correction.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry disputed the remarks by the Ukrainian diplomat and asserted that directives concerning refugees boarding flights didn’t violate the visa-exemption agreement. The ministry said the accord only applied to Ukrainian tourists and that Shaked’s directive would only be in force for two weeks.
An Israeli diplomatic source said he doubted that Ukraine would restrict the entry of Israelis, despite what the diplomat threatened. He noted that Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was informed of Israel’s new policy and didn’t oppose it.
Shaked admitted in closed discussions that one of the main goals of the new framework is to prevent the media from publishing pictures of Ukrainian refugees being turned away at Ben-Gurion.
Tomer Moskowitz, head of the Population and Immigration Authority, said Tuesday during Knesset hearings that the authority didn’t intend to waive the requirement that refugees and their Israeli relatives complete application forms as a condition for boarding.
“When we see what happens here, when there wasn’t such a form, and we could expel a person who has been here for four years illegally – the court orders him to be expelled, and I am deluged with quotes [by Polish poet] Wislawa Szymborska in favor of not expelling him. So, this [policy] is necessary, and I stand by it,” he said.
Yonatan Jakubowicz, Shaked’s legal adviser, expressed a similar sentiment.
“Understand, Ukraine is a country with a visa exemption. That means that every Ukrainian can board a plane and arrive at Ben-Gurion without any limits,” he tweeted. “The size of the quota is a very marginal issue compared to what was at stake. The important thing – and until a few days ago an almost imaginary one – is to stanch the flow by checking applications before boarding the plane.”
On Sunday the High Court of Justice will hear a petition by attorney Tomer Warsha, who is being backed by Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk, opposing the new refugee rules. Warsha contends in his appeal that Israel has unilaterally canceled an international agreement on visa exemptions.