Israel has turned away dozens of Ukrainian refugees, according to a Friday report, as the country’s policy toward those fleeing the Russian invasion continues to stoke controversy.
Around 200 Ukrainian refugees have been turned away after arriving at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, Channel 12 reported. The time frame for the deportations was not clear.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked defended her refugee policy on Friday, as dozens protested outside the airport with signs reading “a Jew does not expel a refugee.”
“Contrary to criticism, the vast majority of those who came to Israel were allowed to enter and stay here until the [war] passes,” Shaked wrote in a Facebook post.
“At the same time, any sane person understands that the tiny nation-state of the Jewish people cannot be a substitute for the various European countries, including Ukraine’s neighbors, who have opened their borders generously [to refugees],” she said.
She said there are around 25,000 Ukrainians currently in Israel.
Over 2 million Ukrainians have fled the war, with the majority going to neighboring Poland. Millions more are internally displaced.
Israel has agreed to allow some 20,000 Ukrainians who were residing in the country illegally or were on tourist visas before the invasion to remain, while also granting temporary visas to a further 5,000 non-Jewish refugees escaping the war. All Jewish Ukrainians are allowed in and given citizenship under the Law of Return.
Channel 12 news reported that Israel might soon reach its 5,000-person cap on Ukrainian refugees arriving since the start of the war who are not eligible for citizenship, set by Shaked on Tuesday, with estimates saying that 3,500 have already arrived in Israel.
Besides the refugee policies, the treatment of those arriving at Israel’s borders has also caused an uproar.
Footage aired by Channel 12 on Thursday showed large numbers of people inside one of the airport’s terminals, with young children sleeping on the floor and on a baggage carousel, as well as an elderly woman being treated after apparently fainting.
“Those images did not go over my head,” Shaked said, adding that she had spoken with “the relevant authorities to take care of the issue.”
Israeli officials said Thursday that they would transfer all Ukrainian refugees awaiting clarity on their entry status from the airport to a hotel.
Some of the refugees were said to be waiting to enter the country for several days, without being given adequate food or a suitable place to rest. Footage aired by the TV network Thursday showed many people, young and old, sitting in plastic chairs, laying on thin mattresses, or resting on the terminal floor itself.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett proclaimed earlier Thursday that Israel must “open its doors and hearts” to Ukrainian Jewish refugees and ensure that their immigration and absorption is as smooth as possible, although the footage undermined his message.
Families of the refugees said that those who arrived in Israel under the Law of Return, which grants them eligibility for Israeli citizenship, were also among those forced to wait. Another person waiting for his family to be processed said that many in the airport said they were willing to go back to Ukraine after the treatment they received.
Soon after the footage was aired, Shaked said she was issuing an immediate order to change the current policy, and transfer any Ukrainians waiting at the airport to a hotel where they can stay until their status is clarified.
The Population and Immigration Authority said that the mass of people and their treatment was due to several flights bringing refugees to the airport at the same time, causing congestion for officials.
Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said that the situation at the airport was unacceptable and that she had brought it up with Shaked.
“I recommend that the interior minister should demand answers and lead her teams, reinforce them… so that there will be food, water, diapers, everything they need,” she said. “This is something we cannot accept.”
Tamano-Shata expressed further displeasure with the treatment of the refugees during a cabinet meeting on Thursday, saying: “It’s shameful. It’s causing chaos for us in the world,” according to transcripts published by Channel 12.
“It makes no sense that in the Jewish state, a woman and her daughter arrive from Ukraine and would not be able to take a shower for three days due to immigration policy,” Ben Gurion Airport director Shmuel Zakai was quoted as saying.
An official from the Population and Immigration Authority at the cabinet meeting claimed that Israel does not want to let through some of those who have arrived, since “if they get in, they won’t leave.” Following the 2014 war between Ukraine and Russia, thousands of Ukrainians came to Israel, with many staying illegally after their visas expired.
Following the release of the reports about the airport conditions, Channel 12 reported that Shaked has instructed for a permanent representative to be present at the airport, who will contact people on their way to Israel and ensure that those who arrive are eligible to enter and have all the documents needed.