Three-quarters of this year’s 50,500 new immigrants linked to war in Ukraine

Nearly 40,000 Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians become citizens, driving 148% overall increase over same period in 2021; about 35,800 Ukrainian refugees from war also arrive

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

In this undated photo, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata welcomes immigrants (Noga Malsa)
In this undated photo, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata welcomes immigrants (Noga Malsa)

Since the beginning of the year, 38,202 new immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus have become Israeli citizens, driving a 148 percent increase in overall immigration over the same nine-month period in 2021, according to Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata.

In addition to new Israelis, 1,011 potential immigrants from the three countries affected by the late February Russian invasion of Ukraine arrived in Israel, alongside nearly 38,500 Ukrainian refugees who do not qualify for Israeli citizenship, according to a spokesperson for the Welfare Ministry, which is responsible for refugees.

From January to September 2021, Israel welcomed only 20,360 new immigrants. The 50,500 new Israelis so far in 2022 contribute to a decade of about 323,000 immigrants to Israel under the Law of Return.

Russia provided half of 2022’s new immigrants, with 23,789 documented immigrations. Ukrainians taking on Israeli citizenship followed with 13,097, and a much smaller number — 1,316 — of Belarussians.

Nevertheless, “tens of thousands” of Jews in Russia are still waiting to emigrate, Tamano-Shata said, although she would not commit to a specific number.

She said that her ministry and the Jewish Agency, its quasi-governmental partner responsible for encouraging and enabling aliyah — or Jewish immigration to Israel — will continue to work to process Jewish immigrants from Russia, despite Moscow’s efforts to shutter the agency in the country.

A sign outside the entrance of a Jewish Agency for Israel office in Moscow, Russia, July 27, 2022. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

“The Jewish Agency is acting in a modified manner, in accordance with their directives. This will be resolved legally,” Tamano-Shata told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Her comments came as a Moscow court on Monday again delayed the trial on the Jewish Agency’s fate in Russia, postponing it until mid-October.

Tamano-Shata said she did not have figures on how many Ukrainian, Russian and Belarussian immigrants have left Israel after obtaining citizenship, although she noted that some have left to “organize themselves” and their property.

A spokesperson for the Population and Immigration Authority, which tracks entry and exit across Israel’s borders, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the number of immigrants who have left.

However, a Welfare Ministry spokesperson said that of the roughly 38,500 non-citizen Ukrainian refugees that have come to Israel since the outbreak of war, only about 13,700 remain in country. And although a large number have passed through, at any one time there were never more than 15,600 Ukrainian refugees in country.

Following immigration from Russia and Ukraine, the United States represented the third-largest country of origin for new citizens, with 6% of incoming immigrants so far in 2022.

In this undated photo, new immigrants arrive from Ethiopia (Noga Malsa)

Ethiopian immigrants to Israel only stood at 2% of the year’s total, although they have caught a disproportional share of headlines as the community battles domestic conflict.

Tamano-Shata, herself an immigrant to Israel from Ethiopia, cast harsh criticism on the government for not doing enough to enable rapid immigration and family unification.

“It doesn’t need to be that a minister who comes from the community is the one who takes care of it. Everyone should take care of it,” she said of long-neglected Ethiopian immigration.

Most pressingly, she said, between 250 to 300 Jews in the war-torn Tigray region are still awaiting clearance to come. “I sat with their rabbis” and went over the list of names, Tamano-Shata added.

Bringing over the descendants of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel has also been problematic. Tamano-Shata said that a decade ago, about 19,000 children of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel were estimated to have been left behind in Ethiopia and were awaiting permission to come to Israel. Several thousand were given approval to come in the past years, and Tamano-Shata hopes to bring over a total of 5,000 of these stranded family members. However, the bulk remain without a promise to complete the process.

“It’s ridiculous. They’ve waited decades and it is very easy to put them on a plane,” she said.

Even once they’re in Israel, the minister said, racism has impeded the absorption of the community.

Citing one example, Tamano-Shata said that she wanted to create an absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants in the southern city of Sderot, but its mayor, Alon Davidi, refused.

“It’s completely racist,” she charged. “He wasn’t willing for us to build an absorption center in Sderot for immigrants from Ethiopia without explaining why.”

The Sderot municipality claimed in a statement that zoning restrictions prevented the creation of an absorption center and accused the minister of “libel.”

“Regarding the building in question, the developer received a permit to build protected housing and the planning designation of the location does not allow it to be turned into an absorption center. Any other claim made here is tantamount to libel,” the municipality wrote.

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