Come as a tourist, leave as a refugee?

Think most asylum seekers in Israel are African? Try Ukrainian

In three years, the number of asylum seekers from Ukraine and Georgia rose from almost 0 to 21,691, spurred by economic troubles and shady companies advertising fake work permits

The line starts early in the afternoon at 53 Salome Street in south Tel Aviv. Across the street from a sleek new residential complex, around the corner from a discount supermarket, dozens of people wait behind a metal barricade.

As the afternoon progresses, the line grows. By midnight, the line might have swollen to hundreds of people. Mostly they wait patiently, checking cellphones, resting their forehead on their hands, leaning against the wall. Police make regular patrols every 20 minutes to ensure it’s quiet, but every once in a while a fight breaks out over a spot in the line.

Snippets of Ukrainian and Russian pepper the air along with broken English, and sometimes there’s a bit of shoving. And then they settle down to wait through the night for the Population Immigration and Borders Authority to open its doors at 8 a.m. the following day.

Welcome to the new face of illegal immigration in Israel.

Over the past few years, politicians and activists have focused the illegal immigration spotlight on the approximately 50,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touring Tel Aviv’s Neve Shaanan neighborhood and Miri Regev saying that Israelis in South Tel Aviv feel like “refugees in their own homes.”

But quietly, under the radar, almost 22,000 Ukrainian and Georgian migrants have entered Israel over the past two years as tourists and tried to stay as refugees. They say their lives are in danger, either from the fighting in eastern Ukraine or because of a difficult political situation in Georgia, and they wait in line for days to file an application for refugee status with the Interior Ministry.

A new report from the nonprofit organization Hotline for Refugees and Migrants claims that these “refugees” are part of a larger scheme of shady companies taking advantage of Israel’s broken asylum system by charging people in Ukraine and Georgia thousands of dollars for so-called “work opportunities” in Israel.

Companies freely advertise on the internet, encouraging people who want to move to Israel to buy the “tourist” package for anywhere from $800 to $1,200. For this price, the companies will coach hopeful migrants to come to Israel on three-month tourist visas, which are available to them on arrival at Ben Gurion Airport.

The companies help their “clients” figure out what to say at the airport to fool border officials about their purpose in coming to Israel and make sure they have erased all electronic communication that could give them away.

The companies also fraudulently make promises about the ease and speed of obtaining refugee status, which they say will quickly enable migrants to get work permits, jobs that pay upwards of NIS 14,000 ($4,000) per month and a range of free social services like health care.

The line late at night outside the office of the Population Immigration and Borders Authority, September 29, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Refugee tourism

Then-interior minister Avigdor Liberman made tourist visas available on arrival for Ukrainians in 2011, in an attempt to improve bilateral ties, citing success with canceling the visa requirement for Russian tourists. The Interior Ministry similarly allowed Georgian tourists to obtain visas on arrival in 2014.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends an event of his Yisrael Beytenu party in Jerusalem on September 13, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Immediately after this, people started coming and requesting asylum,” said Dror Sadot, the spokeswoman for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a nonprofit that provides advocacy and legal services to these groups. “There are many networks of agents who saw that the asylum system in Israel simply isn’t working, so they can take advantage of that.”

Sadot said that Israel is an attractive destination for people looking for economic opportunities, for a number of reasons. Firstly, citizens of many countries with struggling economies are able to obtain tourist visas at the airport, meaning the barrier to initial entry is low.

It takes years to process applications, during which time the asylum seeker is in a kind of legal limbo and can try to find work. And there is an established community of people from these countries already in Israel, who are running fraudulent businesses claiming to “help” their countrymen with work visas.

A screenshot of the website from October 30, 2017, offering help for obtaining refugee status for $800 to $1200, translated with Google Translate. (Screenshot)

These companies prey on vulnerable people, who are either legitimately in danger due to the war in eastern Ukraine or are desperate for work opportunities. These companies utilize misleading advertisements and headhunting sites that look professional, as well as more direct attempts to sway people through personal blogs and video testimonials explaining the ease of obtaining refugee status and work permits in Israel.

“The best way to immigrate for those who wish to leave Ukraine and get a residence permit in Israel will be obtaining refugee status,” states one website called “Go Green.” The advertisement goes on to assert that the process is “completely legal” and, with refugee status, their clients will be able to enjoy housing and other financial assistance from the government in addition to a work permit.

Israel has granted asylum status to zero people from Ukraine and Georgia

The site goes on to note that Israel has become “scrupulous” in determining who is a refugee, which is “why it’s important to enlist the help of experienced lawyers.”

In reality, Israel very rarely grants asylum to anyone. In the past decade, just eight Eritreans and one Sudanese have successfully received refugee status in Israel, despite the fact that approximately 56% of Sudanese and 87% of Eritreans who petition for refugee status around the world generally receive it.

Israel has granted asylum status to zero people from Ukraine and Georgia.

But these fraudulent companies have seized on the years-long wait time before an application is rejected to encourage Ukrainians and Georgians to come and work temporarily in Israel. Technically, people awaiting a decision on an asylum application are not allowed to work, but Israel has a policy of not enforcing this law, in order to enable the country’s 50,000 African migrants to support themselves.

On October 15, the Population, Immigration, and Border Authority announced that the Interior Ministry would “summarily reject” asylum applications from Ukrainians, except from the two separatist-controlled regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, where fighting in the three-year-old war is heaviest.

This follows the Interior Ministry’s announcement in February that it would streamline the asylum application process by summarily rejecting all asylum applications from a country Israel determined does not pose a threat to its denizens. They applied it first to asylum seekers from Georgia. 

“The vast majority of [Ukrainian] asylum seekers are those who desire to ‘formalize’ their stay in Israel and receive a temporary permit, which enables them to work in Israel because Israel has a non-enforcement policy while asylum applications are being considered,” the Population Authority said in a statement. “This phenomenon has created a great burden on the entire system and especially the refugee status determination unit, extending the processing of asylum requests and preventing the unit from handling authentic asylum requests.”

A screenshot from October 30, 2017, of the website GoGreen, which offers lawyers services to help Ukrainians obtain refugee status in Israel, translated with Google Translate. (Screenshot)

Sadot said the organization hasn’t tracked any meaningful decline in the numbers of asylum applicants because statistics are so difficult to come by, though the Interior Ministry claims Georgian application requests have declined. Sadot stressed that while Israel considers countries like Georgia and Ukraine to be “safe,” it is still possible that someone could be in desperate need of refugee status given their unique situation.

The Interior Ministry is required to examine each application from “safe” countries, but with the streamlined process, they are not required to present each application before a committee. This can lessen the wait time from years to weeks, Sadot said.

But the lines at 53 Salome are as long as ever.

A line to nowhere

The hundreds of people waiting in line nearly every week night are just the tip of the iceberg.

According to the Population Immigration and Border Administration, over the last three years, Ukrainians and Georgians submitted 21,691 asylum applications, accounting for the vast majority of asylum applications over the past years.

In 2015, 703 Ukrainians submitted asylum applications, but that number jumped to 6,880 in 2016. In the first half of 2017, Ukrainians have already submitted almost 6,000 asylum applications to PIBA.

In 2013, there was just one application for asylum from a Georgian citizen. This number climbed to 27 in 2014, 736 in 2015, and 3,668 in 2016, according to Globes. Georgian migrants are overwhelmingly looking for better economic opportunities, though they claim they are persecuted as members of the political opposition.

The Interior Ministry is trying to clamp down on the situation at the airport, according to the Hotline Report. In 2016, PIBA refused entry to 5,700 Ukrainian citizens and 3,500 Georgian citizens who arrived in Israel but aroused suspicion as to their purpose. They were not allowed to leave the airport and had to return to their country of origin immediately.

What makes a refugee?

The situation is complicated because it’s difficult to sift through people whose lives are actually in danger amidst the war in eastern Ukraine and those who are telling stories, with the help of shady headhunting companies, for the benefit of obtaining refugee status.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the war in eastern Ukraine, which started in 2014 but has faded from international headlines, has internally displaced more than 1.6 million Ukrainians. Close to a million Ukrainians living along the “Line of Contact” bordering the area with heavy fighting in east Ukraine. Those in the Line of Contact deal with constant fighting, severely limited mobility, and lack of government services including health, education, and welfare. The UNHCR estimates that artillery from the fighting destroys between 40 to 60 houses per week in the region.

A pro-Russian rebel stands on guard in a storage for cannons in the village of Novoamvrosiivske, eastern Ukraine, Friday, March 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

Israel, like most other countries, denies refugee status to Ukrainians. The international community has also been slow to grant refugee status to Ukrainian migrants, arguing the same point as the Population Authority: Ukraine is a large country, so people affected by the conflict should go to another part of Ukraine rather than fleeing to another country.

According to the UNHCR, the vast majority of Ukrainians, about 1.4 million of the 1.6 million displaced by fighting, stay in Ukraine. About 400,000 moved to Russia. Italy and Germany have officially accepted the most Ukrainian migrants in Europe, with about 10,000 each. These figures don’t account for the thousands of Ukrainians who are still trying to obtain refugee status.

Experts worry that migrants looking for economic opportunity are piggybacking on the political situation, making it more difficult for those actually in need of refugee status to obtain it.

Welcome to Israel. May we recommend these 50 meters of pavement?

A quick search for “move to Israel” in Ukrainian returns with hundreds of results from companies promising a quick and easy process to claim refugee status and set up a new life in Israel.

In some cases, the fraud ends with the payment to the headhunting company, which is unable to deliver on a quick refugee status as their “clients” languish in line at Salome 53. But in a few instances, these connections have been more sinister.

In extreme cases, Hotline has documented situations where people who utilized these “companies” to help them obtain working permits were kept in slave-like conditions, forced to work 12-15 hours per day in a factory. The workers were forbidden from leaving the factory and only paid NIS 2,000 ($600) for a month’s work.

In that case, authorities made a surprise inspection of the factory and found workers with forged documents and deported them immediately.

Still, the horror stories haven’t stopped the tide of hopefuls.

“I heard that Israel has signed an international treaty in support of migrants who suffered from civil war,” said Anatoly, originally from Vinitsa in central Ukraine, as he waited in line at 53 Salome with his wife. “You find it on the internet, many people write that you can get refugee status,” he said. Anatoly, who declined to give his last name, said he had rented an apartment in Bat Yam with other Ukrainians also trying to obtain refugee status and had been waiting in line every night with his wife for the past two weeks, excluding nights when the office is closed the following day.

In some cases, people attempting to claim refugee status burn through their three months of tourist visa allotment simply waiting in line at 53 Salome Street. “These fifty meters are like my Golgotha [the hill where Jesus was crucified],” Anatoly said, through a translator.

Anatoly, 30, said that he fled Ukraine because he was about to be drafted into the army against his will and his family was threatened. While the Ukrainian army has instituted some aspects of compulsory draft and increased punishments against defectors starting in 2014, the maximum age for enlistment is 27.

Others said the political situation in Ukraine and the war with Russia has made life impossible. Vita, 37, was a lawyer dealing with corruption cases in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, in an area just outside of the conflict zone.

She said three lawyers were killed in Kharkiv and some groups were beginning to target her as well, taking out advertisements in the newspaper slandering her name and pouring acid on her car. “I filed complaints to the authorities, but nothing happened,” she said. “Regretfully, I had no choice but to leave, it was a question of my personal safety.”

“There’s no law in the country and awful corruption, people can kill you or burn your house but police do nothing,” said Roma, 38, a man from eastern Ukraine who had met Vita in line a few nights prior.

Roma said he came to Israel because he couldn’t go to another part of Ukraine. “I was being persecuted by the extreme right nationalists,” said Roma, 38, who is from Eastern Ukraine, referring to neo-Nazi groups who have used violence against gay and lesbian gatherings, media outlets, and peace marches. “But the far right nationalists are situated in the West of Ukraine as well so it’s dangerous for me to go there.”

Vita said she chose to come to Israel because she had previously visited the country as a tourist. “This is a land of law and I like their attitude towards human beings,” she said. “This is a country which helps people temporarily to stay in a safe way for people who found themselves in problematic situations.”

Vita had been standing in line for five nights and called the experience “humiliating.” “In this situation, we have no choice, but it is tiresome both physically and morally,” she said.

Both Vita and Roma said they saw dozens of ads for companies promising refugee status to Ukrainians in Israel, but they insisted they came to Israel on their own.

“I’ve studied local law, and now I’ve realized its really problematic to get refugee status, but I hope I can at least spend some time here until things calm down at home,” said Vita. “I want the war to end in the east, and while I’m here I want to be of use,” Vita said while she hoped to work as a legal assistant or legal translator in Israel once she obtained documents and learned Hebrew. “Every person should look on their own for a better place, but we also realize that Israel is not a limitless place,” she said.

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