Behind a Surge of Asylum Seekers in Israel, a Small Industry of Fixers

Georgians and Ukrainians have been entering Israel in growing numbers as tourists and then applying for refugee status so they can work legally.

Bloomberg

Thousands of people from Ukraine and the Caucasus republic of Georgia have been entering Israel as asylum seekers in the last two years, guided by what observers say is a small industry of fixers and labor contractors.

The fixers steer them through the system, advising them on how to enter the country and taking advantage of asylum laws that enable them to work legally, usually in low-skilled jobs in construction, cleaning and restaurant work.

The Population, Immigration and Border Authority is aware of the surge in Georgians and Ukrainians entering the country but so far hasn’t acted on it. “We intend tighter supervision,” a spokesman said.

“We’re seeing a system where interested parties, Israelis and foreigners, are exploiting the bureaucratic failures in the asylum system to bring workers to Israel on a massive scale,” said attorney Tomer Warsaw, who has represented many refugees.

As reported in a story by TheMarker earlier this week, the number of tourists from Georgia – a poor country that shares borders with Russia, Turkey and Armenia, and has a population of 10 million – jumped to 117,000 so far this year, up from 91,000 in 2011.

As recently as 2013, only four Georgians sought asylum in Israel. But the number grew to more than 700 last year, while this year the figure has swelled to about 5,500 (through to October 31). The authority says many more simply stay in Israel illegally.

The number of Ukrainian tourists is much smaller, totaling just 10,385 so far this year. But the authority said a third of them have sought asylum. It has received 3,069 applications as of October 31, up from 720 last year and just one in 2013.

Many of the fixers can be found on the street close to the population authority’s offices in Salame Street in central Tel Aviv where they meet up with Georgians, Ukrainians and others who have recently arrived in Israel, in some cases right after they have stepped off the plane.

The fixers are typically Israelis who immigrated from Ukraine or Georgia and can serve as go-betweens for the two cultures. Many of them consult with attorneys about how best to navigate the system for their clients.

Officials at the authority say Ukrainians usually claim on their applications that they are seeking to avoid the military draft. Ukraine has been wracked by fighting in the east – by ethnic Russians believed to be backed by the Russian armed forces – that has left thousands dead, and by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. As a result, officials at the authority are more sympathetic to their claims.

However, while Georgia has also been troubled by Russia and is coping with breakaway provinces, officials are more skeptical of asylum applications from Georgians, most of whom claim they are members of the political opposition and are fearing for their lives.

On Salame Road, the people who responded to a reporter’s question about why they came to Israel usually answered that they had heard on television news at home that Israel is a good place for seeking asylum and finding work.

Labor contractors often begin guiding them on how to navigate the asylum system – where to go and what to say in their application.

Israel is an easy destination for them to reach because visa requirements from countries like George and Ukraine that once were part of the Soviet Union ended in 2008. Once they arrive in Israel as tourists, they go to the population authority to apply for refugee status.

After they have filed, the process of examining their application gets underway. But since that can take years, they justifiably apply for permission to work in the meantime. They are then not only entitled to work legally but to enjoy the same pension and other rights Israeli citizens get.

Warsaw said the root of the problem is the shortage of labor in Israel, where the unemployment rate is at its lowest in decades.

“The way the go about it is unacceptable, but it demonstrates that there in a need, that there aren’t enough workers in the Israeli economy,” he said. “An Israeli employer who can’t find manpower is going to use this as a solution if the government won’t help him.”