Israel to offer healthcare, temporary housing to Ukrainian refugees

Welfare Ministry says priority will go to at-risk populations, as it seeks to address needs of thousands entering the country

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Israeli and Ukrainian refugees arriving from Ukraine on a rescue flight are welcomed at Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Israeli and Ukrainian refugees arriving from Ukraine on a rescue flight are welcomed at Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel will grant basic services including health care and housing assistance to the thousands of Ukrainian refugees entering the country, the Welfare Ministry announced Wednesday.

Over 6,000 Ukrainian refugees who are not eligible for Israeli citizenship have entered Israel since Russia invaded their country late last month, according to Israel’s Population Authority, and roughly the same number are expected to do so in the coming days and weeks for a total of 15,000 refugees.

Up until now, such refugees have been in Israel on tourist visas, which afford them no social services, like healthcare, education or housing assistance.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tasked the Welfare Ministry with addressing the issue and providing basic services to asylum seekers.

“According to the plan, the Welfare Ministry will provide the refugees with temporary housing, food assistance, material assistance, social services and other rights like health insurance and enrollment in the education system,” the ministry said.

The basic health insurance will be issued by private insurance companies, not by state-run healthcare providers.

The ministry allocated some NIS 15 million ($4.6 million) for its refugee assistance programs, which will work out to roughly NIS 1,000 ($306) per refugee.

The ministry said these basic services will be granted to refugees until they receive formal recognition by the state as refugees — a process that can take several weeks — at which point they would be eligible for more benefits, notably work permits.

“This is our moral, Jewish and Israeli responsibility, and we see great honor in this responsibility. I want to thank the prime minister for giving the Welfare Ministry and me this mission,” Welfare Minister Meir Cohen said in a statement.

The ministry said it would also operate a special phone line for Ukrainian refugees to provide them with assistance as needed and would coordinate with local nonprofit organizations that can help with other issues that the government would not address.

“The plan will put an emphasis on providing comprehensive assistance to elderly refugees, children, at-risk youth and people with disabilities,” the ministry said.

The issue of Ukrainian refugees has been a highly contentious one in Israel. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, with the support of many right-wing lawmakers, initially severely limited the number of refugees who could enter the country and required the families of those coming in to put down large monetary deposits that would only be returned upon their exit from the country.

In the face of a public outcry against these practices, as well as criticism from government ministers, the Interior Ministry first did away with the deposit requirement and increased the number of refugees it would allow into Israel to 5,000, then softened the rules further, allowing any Ukrainian with a family member in Israel to enter the country without limit.

Refugees looking to enter the country were also initially subjected to extensive questioning and detention at Ben Gurion Airport before fierce backlash prompted the government to begin housing them at hotels in Tel Aviv instead.

Though the government has eased its policies on refugees, it has continued to face criticism for its handling of the issue. On Wednesday, Kan news reported that the Population and Immigration Authority had unnecessarily deported dozens of Ukrainian refugees because one of its forms had a translation error, resulting in applicants inadvertently declaring that they had stayed in Israel illegally in the past — when they thought they were saying only that they had visited the country.

Agriculture Minister Oded Forer defended the government’s harsh refugee policy during a cabinet meeting on Monday, saying Israel was going “above and beyond what any country that does not border Ukraine has done,” according to selectively leaked quotes to Hebrew media.

“That’s correct,” Shaked agreed. “The government and the ministers should boast of and praise the absorption operation.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai has been one of the leading voices in the government in favor of taking in more refugees.

“As I have said again and again in recent days, Israel must take a broader and more active role in the humanitarian effort to rescue Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war. This is the ethical and human behavior we must carry out,” he said on Sunday.

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