Israel Hampering Ukrainians From Leading a Dignified Life, UN Envoy for Refugees in Israel Tells Haaretz

19.02.23, Bar Peleg, Haaretz

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The representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, Mathijs Le Rutte, expressed his fear for the future of the Ukrainians who had fled to Israel, six months after taking up the post at the height of the refugee crisis caused by the war in Ukraine.

Now, one year into the war, he shares with Haaretz his concerns over the way Israel is treating the Ukrainian refugees, and emphasizes that the lack of consistency toward them creates many difficulties and prevents them from receiving basic rights and living with dignity.

According to figures from the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry, since the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine, more than 50,000 Ukrainian refugees arrived in Israel, some of whom claim the right to aliyah based on the Law of Return. Some 15,000 of them remain.

Every month the Population and Immigration Authority extends the refugees’ visas and they stay in the country as part of the policy of temporary non-repatriation. As long as they remain, the administration in charge of their cases in the Welfare Ministry grants them limited social rights.

The flood of refugees to Israel compelled it for the first time to deal with a huge number of people seeking entry through its main gateway, Ben-Gurion International Airport.

As opposed to the entry of African asylum seekers through holes in the fence along the Egyptian border, the arrival of refugees through the airport allowed Israel to regulate the number of people coming in as it wished and decide how to deal with them. But decisions change frequently, there is a considerable lack of consistency, and the ones who pay the price are the refugees fleeing from the horrors of war.

The outcome is that Israel treats the Ukrainian refugees, which it calls by the whitewashed term “escapees from war,” much like the African asylum seekers: Granting them temporary protection from deportation and pushes them out slowly but surely.

According to UN figures, 8 million refugees have been documented in various countries in Europe, about 5 million of whom have been granted temporary protection in these countries. Other than these, there are still about 5 million refugees internally displaced in Ukraine.

“Limited inventory of rights”

“Our main concern right now [with regard to Israeli policy] is the lack of a consistent and clear approach to Ukrainians who fled the war and are residing in Israel,” Le Rutte says.

The inconsistency, he continues, manifests itself in Israel’s unwillingness to review asylum applications of Ukrainians submitted before the outbreak of the war, and difficulties in filing new requests. Israel also does not grant long-term residence visas to refugees, but renews them by means of a ministerial decision, on the last days of every month, for 30 days. This is in contrast to the visas given in most European countries to those who fled Ukraine.

The inconsistency he describes also expresses itself in the pace at which decisions change. The state changed its plan three times for the entry of Ukrainians to Israel, one of which followed a High Court of Justice ruling.

In early March, shortly after the war in Ukraine began, then-Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked issued a plan by which Israel would allow 5,000 refugees from Ukraine to enter the country for purposes of “temporary hosting,” for three months. Later in March, Shaked expanded the plan to allow unlimited entry to refugees with relatives of any sort in the country.

Three months after the refugees started coming, they were allowed to work in Israel, but later that year Israel twice imposed extensive restrictions on their freedom of employment. The only thing that remained constant from the beginning of the war is the welfare services the refugees receive, which include health insurance for refugees over 60 years old. But these services are also few and in recent months have been further restricted, especially when it comes to housing.

“Determining who can come and who is unable to stay is in the hands of the government, and each administration had their own system in deciding it,“ Le Rutte says, “but to prevent people from coming and then give the minimum to those who managed to enter and live in Israel, is a difficult approach from a humanitarian point of view.”

Israel’s attempt to push refugees out of its borders began at the outset of the crisis. The authorities provided them with three-month tourist visas and failed to treat them as refugees.

Le Rutte explains: “Initially, granting tourist visas looked like positive thing, saying, ‘we don’t want to have a lot of bureaucracy, it’s clear that you come here in order to seek some temporary protection. Let’s skip some of the paperwork and we give you tourist visas.’ In essence, that looks good.”

Expectations were later dashed. “But then what we have seen time and time again is that they are also treated as tourists in the sense that the kind of inventory of rights that they have access to are very limited…, if they want to have the basic things that you need when you stay clearly longer than a tourist, then the sort of bureaucratic apparatus says, oh no, but you’re just a tourist…”

One of the basic actions the refugees are barred from taking due to their status as tourists is opening a bank account, by virtue of being stateless.

In December, attorney Anat Ben-Dor of Tel Aviv University’s Refugee Rights Clinic informed the Supervisor of Banks Yair Avidan, that her team had received many requests on the matter. Among them was a woman who wanted to open a bank account and was required to present an “Israeli document,” or an approval of her refugee status, and another case of a woman who was turned down for a bank account because her residency status was not stamped in her passport. Other women, who presented a valid passport and other Ukrainian identity documents were nevertheless turned down. Ben-Dor has not yet received a response from Avidan.

Another issue that makes life difficult for the refugees in Israel is employment. Israel has never granted work permits to Ukrainians, but rather conducts a policy of non-enforcement toward employers in such cases. This vague policy, along with the residency permits that are granted for brief periods each time, makes it difficult for large and institutionalized employers to give jobs to Ukrainians.

Other difficulties also come up because of the custom of limiting the employment of refugees to 17 cities and towns in Israel, when the refugees themselves are clustered in only seven of these locals.

Attorney Orly Levinson-Sela of the refugee advocacy organization ASSAF, wrote in a position paper marking a year since the outbreak of the war: “These edicts increase the risk [to the refugees] of harmful employment, human trafficking and prostitution to survive.” ASSAF has advised the state to extend the residency visa of the Ukrainians to six months at a time, to help them find fair and legal work.

The refugee assistance organization HIAS conducted a survey of 140 refugees last summer, before all the employment restrictions were imposed. It was found that 88 percent of respondents were employment-age women, and that 40 percent were working, 55 percent of whom were employed as cleaners. Among the female refugees who have an academic degree, 51 percent were unemployed and 29 percent were working as cleaners or in child care.

The restrictions on employment are one of the reasons that 36,468 Ukrainian refugees have left Israel, according to the Welfare Ministry. “But then those who do end up staying legally should be given at least a minimal ability to have a dignified life,” Le Rutte told Haaretz. “And it’s not like people want to rely on anyone else. People want to work,” he adds. Since the beginning of the war, the Welfare Ministry has assisted 16,622 Ukrainian refugees, some 67 percent of whom asked for food assistance. This is less than half the refugees who came to Israel, and according to estimates, the number of people in need of assistance was much greater.

In the interview, the UN High Commissioner’s representative also discussed the conditions in the Population Authority’s detention center at the airport, where people banned from entering the country are held. “An airport isn’t designed for that purpose, and therefore they don’t have the facilities to deal with these type of things,” Le Rutte says.

The status of the High Commissioner allows its personnel to enter the detention center for monitoring purposes, and they have indeed conducted coordinated visits at the site, as well as at the Dan Hotel, where refugees were confined under detention conditions at the height of their entry to Israel. “We found the fact that kids with parents are being held in crowded rooms for days as inappropriate,” he said, adding that a detention facility is “not an appropriate place for kids to be.”

On the eve of Israel’s last election, Le Rutte discussed the challenges the refugees face with senior Israeli officials in various government ministries. “They’ve told me, ‘look, they are protected in Europe, why would they have to come here?’

I think this is the solidarity we would want to see more of from Israel. If you look at the numbers, if you look at the comparison between what’s happening in countries closer to Ukraine, I think that the number of people that came here is not unmanageable for a country like Israel, specifically because you have these really emotional and cultural links with the population that’s already here,” Le Rutte says.

Not a mistake, a policy

Le Rutte took up his post in Israel in August after 35 years working for the United Nations in 13 countries, including Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Sudan and Chad. His rich experience dealing with refugees led him to Israel, a country that does not generously assist this population.

Besides the problems regarding Ukrainian refugees, the difficulties for the past 15 years with African asylum seekers in Israel, who receive even less help than the Ukrainians, have also landed on Le Rutte’s desk. According to Le Rutte, the refugees say the Israeli policy creates more uncertainty than ever.

“The biggest gap, I think, that I find in Israel in terms of the entire approach to asylum seekers is a deliberate uncertainty that’s created in everything,” he says. “Let’s say you are an asylum seeker and you don’t have health insurance. Tomorrow it’ll rain and you fall off your bicycle while delivering for Wolt. What else can you do besides die in the street? You must go to the hospital, but you don’t have any backing unless you’ve stuffed your mattress with money. Nothing is clear,” he adds.

Le Rutte says refugees in Israel are “battling against the lack of health insurance and other social services. They are having trouble finding work, and their ability to provide has diminished.”

One thing that suprised Le Rutte is the vague manner in which Israel is treating the refugees, given the fact that Israelis are usually more direct. “Israelis are honest people. I’m Dutch, and we’re also very honest. That’s one of the things we have in common, on a cultural level. I like when people are open and put everything on the table.”

In his diplomatic language, the commissioner’s representative criticizes the Israeli authorities who reject the vast majority of asylum applications, most of which aren’t even examined to begin with.

He repeats the common claim that the Israelis need to act differently on this issue because of their history. “That’s not an argument that politicians like to hear,” he says, and recalls the refugee convention that Israel helped initiate in 1954. La Rotta emphasizes that “every nation hasd a role to play in a system of international solidarity. It’s no mistake that Israel doesn’t have a structured policy [to enact the treaty], its a deliberate policy of obfuscation. The Israeli government is effective and did not ‘forget’ to set a policy regarding asylum claims.”

Today, Le Rutte needs to deal with the difficulties he describes when many of the government ministers champion the struggle against foreigners and asylum seekers. The coalition agreement between Likud and Religious Zionism, for example, states that the parties will promote a Basic Law on immigration, containing a clause that will limit the right of foreigners to appear before courts, and another clause that would allow people who enter the country illegally to be detained for an unlimited period, until they leave.

Similar laws have been struck down in the past by the High Court, but the plan to weaken the justice system promoted by the government could take away the ability of judges to intervene in the future.

“We are aware of what may happen, but it’s difficult for me to address it as long as it’s not concrete. Le Rutte said. “The moment it happens, we’ll be ready to comment on it. It is hard to find any circumstance that justifies indefinite detention when it comes to immigration issues without a criminal conviction. It also doesn’t make much sense from Israel’s point of view – it is very expensive to keep a person in prison forever.”

The representative argues that the implementation of these plans, along with existing restrictions, will push asylum seekers to the margins and, according to him, sentence them to a miserable life.

“This is significant for us,” he clarifies, “it’s a clear contravention to even the basics of what we would expect from any country to have as an asylum system.”

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