Israel, expecting massive influx of Ukrainian refugees, struggles to form policy

Interior minister says government might need to limit entry; Education Ministry prepares to absorb schoolchildren; Diaspora minister urges cancelation of ‘inhumane’ arrival deposit

Jewish Ukrainians who fled war zones in Ukraine, seen at Chisinau International Airport in Moldova, as they make their way to Israel, March 6, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Jewish Ukrainians who fled war zones in Ukraine, seen at Chisinau International Airport in Moldova, as they make their way to Israel, March 6, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine dragged through its 11th brutal day Sunday, and with the UN calling the ensuing refugee crisis the fastest-growing in Europe since World War II, Israel seemed to be struggling with its policy on absorbing fugitives from the war-stricken country.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked signaled Sunday that Israel may move to limit the number of Ukrainian refugees allowed into the country.

Speaking at a Knesset meeting on the preparations for absorbing Israeli citizens and refugees fleeing the Russian invasion, Shaked said that of the 2,034 Ukrainians who have arrived since the start of the war, around 10 percent are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.

She estimated that at the current pace, there will be 15,000 refugees within the month.

“It’s impossible to continue with an entry rate such as this. We need to set down a policy,” she was quoted as saying by the Walla news site.

“Relative to its size, Israel has brought in more [Ukrainians] than any country in Europe besides those bordering Ukraine,” she posited.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked during a plenum session at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The UN on Sunday reported over 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees displaced since the invasion began on February 24, calling it Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.

The Immigration and Absorption Ministry announced Sunday that new immigrants from Ukraine will be granted a special status that enables them to receive a one-time payment from the state of around NIS 6,000 (approximately $1,800) per immigrant, or NIS 11,000 ($3,350) for a couple and around NIS 15,000 ($4,580) for a family.

This is in addition to the benefits provided by the ministry over the first six months for any immigrant who arrives in Israel, which amount to approximately NIS 19,000 ($5,800) for a single person and NIS 36,000 ($10,995) for a family.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said Sunday she expected tens of thousands of people to immigrate to Israel in the coming months amid the intensifying military invasion and the Russian shelling of major cities.

“We are trying to offer the best possible conditions to Jews and those eligible [to immigrate] under the Law of Return. We are not [even] asking them to come with visas,” she said.

“The main, massive absorption [of the immigrants] will be for the long term, and we are working on this now. I expect tens of thousands of Jews to arrive in Israel in the coming months,” she added.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ronen Cohen, the director of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, told Army Radio on Sunday evening that 400 refugees had landed in Israel in the previous six hours.

The Jewish Agency, which facilitates immigration to Israel, said it has already received thousands of immigration requests from Ukraine over the past week and a half, since the start of the Russian offensive, far more than they normally receive over the course of an entire year.

Israeli officials have predicted a similar jump in immigration from Russia.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry said it was preparing to absorb as many as 2,000 Ukrainian schoolchildren into the education system over the coming days.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton has ordered that plans be drawn up for integrating the students and their parents into the educational system and community, the ministry said in a statement.

Jewish Ukrainians who fled war zones in Ukraine, seen leaving a hotel to the airport in Warsaw to board a plane of the Jewish Agency, as they make thier way to Israel, March 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Despite the current Israeli efforts and the expected wave of Ukrainian refugees, the country’s policy has been criticized for limiting the number of non-Jewish Ukrainians allowed into the country and for creating obstacles for those who do manage to enter.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai sent an urgent letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday, requesting that Israel immediately remove the demand for a NIS 10,000 deposit which it is currently requiring from refugees arriving in the country.

“Such a demand at this moment is inhumane and immoral,” the minister wrote.

“It automatically restricts the entry of refugees to Israel who do not have relatives and do not have the means to meet this demand. I request that you immediately give instructions to cancel the requirement for these deposits for Ukrainian citizens arriving in Israel,” he said.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai attends the Jewish People’s Lobby, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ukraine has about 43,300 people who self-identify as Jews and about 200,000 people eligible to immigrate to Israel under its Law of Return for Jews and their relatives, according to a 2020 demographic study of European Jewry.

Under the Law of Return, the immediate families of those eligible to immigrate to Israel — which is anyone who has a Jewish parent or grandparent — can also receive Israeli citizenship, provided they immigrate together. Due to the unique situation in Ukraine, however, many families have been forced to travel separately. Shaked, the interior minister, instructed her office last week to ease citizenship requirements for the families of Ukrainians immigrating to Israel, but only for families of those who are Jewish according to Israel’s religious standard.

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