Russian nationals who entered Israel as tourists have been filing asylum requests in record numbers, according to official figures.
Israeli officials and activists working with asylum seekers say the requests are part of a massive fraud in which human traffickers promise foreigners lucrative work opportunities, bring them to Israel as tourists, then rely on Israel’s notoriously overworked and slow-moving asylum approval bureaucracy to grant the migrants a lengthy stay in the country while it vets the requests.
Just in 2018, the rate of asylum requests filed by Russians claiming political persecution in their home country has quadrupled, Haaretz reported Tuesday, with 1,344 such requests recorded in the first six months of the year compared to just 635 in the whole of 2017, 395 in 2016, and just several requests per year before that.
The increase has made Israeli officials suspicious, and led to a sharp rise in entry refusals for Russian citizens, from 1,400 in all of 2017 to 2,200 in just the first six months of 2018.
Under a visa agreement between Israel and Russia, Russians may enter Israel without special visas, a fact that makes such widespread fraud easy to implement.
“We’re seeing a new and worrying phenomenon that has set off warning signals over asylum seekers from Russia who are coming mainly for economic reasons,” the head of the Enforcement and Aliens Division of the authority, Yossi Edelstein, told the Haaretz daily.
“The economic situation in Israel is better than in Africa or Eastern Europe, and better even than in some countries in western Europe. The wage gaps are huge, and create a motive for coming to work in Israel. So we’re more stringent at the border crossings and refusing to let in anyone who we suspect isn’t coming for tourism,” Edelstein said.
According to Sigal Rozen of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli rights group, human traffickers advertise for workers overseas, then advise them to file an asylum request once in Israel, meaning that the state can’t deport them until a ruling is made on their request.
The traffickers promise the migrants that they would be granted refugee papers and earn a good living in Israel. “That’s how over 20,000 Ukrainians and Georgians arrived in Israel,” she said.
Each time the government takes away the work permits of asylum seekers from those countries, the number of migrants from those countries drops sharply and a new spike is seen from other nations, Rozen said.
The significant increase from Russia comes in stark contrast to data for Ukrainian and Georgian nationals. The number of asylum requests by citizens of the two Eastern European countries was also steadily rising for a few years, but dropped significantly in 2018 after officials in the Population and Immigration Authority approved an expedited process for rejecting asylum requests from those countries without the need to examine each request closely and independently.
The expedited process was approved after the countries were declared safe by relevant Israeli authorities.
According to Edelstein, officials are considering instituting a similar expedited asylum denial process for Russian migrants in a bid to curtail the influx. But, he added, “we’re not there yet.”