'We are being treated as if we are criminals'

Ukraine refugees said suspected of trafficking teen because questioned in Russian

Court rules family can enter Israel following 3-day detention at Ben Gurion Airport after ‘controversial’ interrogation in Russian rather than Ukrainian led to misunderstanding

Illustrative -- Demonstrator at a protest march against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, on February 26, 2022 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative -- Demonstrator at a protest march against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, on February 26, 2022 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A family of Ukrainian refugees was detained for three days at Ben Gurion Airport on suspicion of trafficking a teen because they were questioned in Russian rather than Ukrainian, Haaretz reported Friday.

The 17-year-old arrived in the country with a family who are not her relatives, prompting fears that it may be an incident of trafficking.

The family — two adults and three children as well as the teen — was detained on the basis of an interview conducted in Russian rather than in the family’s native Ukrainian, leading to misunderstandings and concerns for the girl’s welfare when in fact the paperwork was in order.

A court ruled on Thursday that the family should be allowed entry to Israel and that their version of events as to why the teen was with them, was credible, Haaretz said.

The judge at the hearing, Meirav Fleischer Levy, said in her ruling that the interrogation the family and teen were put through was “controversial.”

The father in the family detailed the treatment the family had received since their arrival in Israel after fleeing the Russian invasion.

“When we were interrogated in Terminal 3, we were treated rudely and shouted at. They did not want to listen to us and did not let us say a word,” the man wrote in an affidavit. “We are being held in the worst conditions in a detention facility and we have been separated.”

“My wife is breastfeeding and there is no proper food here. The rooms are very cold. They did not let us meet and did not let us get fresh air in the yard. There are no facilities for children. We are being treated here at the facility as if we are criminals,” he said.

A legal representative for the family told The Times of Israel on Thursday that though there was a tangle of paperwork regarding the 17-year-old girl, there was no question that she has been placed in the care of the family, and that there was nothing illegal about her arrival.

Idan Moldavski, the attorney representing the family, said the girl arrived in Israel with the family on March 22 and that the father has a work permit until the end of December.

However, during their interviews at Ben Gurion Airport, an Interior Ministry interpreter was “hostile” to the family and mistranslated some of the things that were said, the lawyer said.

When the family arrived earlier this month, the father told border officials that his wife had adopted the girl as an orphan in Ukraine, but Population, Immigration and Border Authority officials said that there were contradictions in his account and got the impression that the girl was not tied to the family.

However, when questioned later, it became clear that the girl had been placed in an orphanage run by the grandmother of the family that she traveled with, and that she viewed the mother as a “big sister.”

Officials determined that all the paperwork was in order and that the grandmother had appointed the mother as the teen’s formal guardian. Those papers, in Ukrainian, were backed up by the Ukrainian consul in Israel, according to Moldavski.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry’s legal aid unit is pushing to be permitted to represent Ukrainian refugee minors who arrive unaccompanied by adults after a number of incidents in which such arrivals were dealt with by Israeli authorities without adult representation.

Providing the legal aid is dependent on the approval of the Justice Ministry director-general, Haaretz said Thursday.

At a Wednesday meeting of the Knesset special committee for foreign workers, a Justice Ministry representative asked the Population, Immigration and Border Control Authority to clarify its position on the matter. PIBA representatives said it was not aware of any cases of minors arriving alone and not being appointed a legal representative.

However, Haaretz reported that there had been at least three such cases recently.

The plight of unaccompanied Ukrainian refugees has been gaining attention in the international community.

The United Nations says more than 3.5 million people — mainly women and children — have fled Ukraine in the month since Russian tanks rolled across the border and Moscow began relentlessly bombarding towns and cities.

As millions of people flee the raging conflict in Ukraine, aid workers are scrambling to ensure human traffickers do not take advantage of the chaos.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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