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Would-be immigrants from Ukraine brought in on tourist visas, denying them services

Trying to solve the growing bottleneck of refugees stuck in Europe waiting to immigrate, Israel has created a new problem by placing them in limbo until they get citizenship

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

Immigrants fleeing Ukraine arrive at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Immigrants fleeing Ukraine arrive at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In attempting to solve the problem of a growing bottleneck of Ukrainian refugees requesting Israeli citizenship, the government apparently created a new one this week, allowing applicants into Israel on tourist visas, which do not grant them access to basic services and benefits and leave them without things like health care.

At least two such applicants who have cancer — a man with leukemia and a woman with breast cancer who was in the middle of chemotherapy in Ukraine — landed in Israel on Tuesday and were not initially granted immediate access to the care they required, until local advocates at Ben Gurion Airport successfully argued on their behalf and they were granted immigration visas, which will give them access to cancer treatments, one of the volunteers told The Times of Israel.

A spokesperson for the Immigration and Absorption Ministry said the government was aware of the health care issue and was working to resolve it within the next day or two.

As growing waves of refugees from Ukraine streamed into neighboring countries — roughly three million people, according to United Nations estimates — thousands of them have requested to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, or married to an Israeli.

As more and more such people arrived, the Israeli and Jewish organizations providing them with places to sleep were rapidly becoming overwhelmed and running out of space, as Israeli officials were unable to process their immigration requests quickly, due to both the intense volume and lack of paperwork for many of the refugees.

In a bid to ease this backlog, the Israeli government on Sunday said it was adopting a new strategy — known as the “Green Path” — for refugees asking to immigrate, in which they would be flown to Israel before their paperwork was fully reviewed and without receiving an immigration visa. Once they reach Israel, their requests would be fully examined and, if approved, they would receive citizenship and the benefits that go along with it.

Illustrative. Jewish Ukrainian refugees at an emergency shelter sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and Joint Distribution Committee in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 5, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Those benefits can be considerable. Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata on Tuesday told the Knesset that new immigrants will be eligible for a month’s stay in a hotel upon arrival. In addition to the roughly NIS 3,000 ($900) in cash and monthly stipends that all new immigrants receive, each family of refugees from Ukraine will also receive an additional NIS 6,000 ($1,800) to NIS 15,000 ($4,500), depending on the number of people in the family. As citizens, they will also receive free basic health care, education for their children and a host of other social and welfare services.

Separately from the tangible benefits, those coming in on tourist visas are also denied the fanfare and warmth that those entering Israel on immigration visas receive.

Until their requests are fully processed, those on the “Green Path” do not receive those benefits.

Immigrants fleeing Ukraine arrive at the Israeli Immigration and Absorption Ministry offices at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It was not immediately clear how many Ukrainian refugees eligible for Israeli citizenship will enter the country in this way and how many will enter on immigration visas.

A spokesperson for the Immigration and Absorption Ministry said that while they will not be eligible for all benefits, those coming to Israel in this way will be given room and board until their immigration requests are processed.

“They are getting everything from us until they get their [immigrant] status. It does take time. We are trying to speed things up in order to help people. But it’s a process, and there are incredible amounts of people coming. It’s not simple,” he said.

The spokesman said the issue of providing the would-be immigrants with health care is being examined and the ministry planned to have a solution within the coming days.

“The topic is being reviewed. We hope there will be solutions within a day or two. In the meantime, we are getting people the medical care they need,” he said.

This issue arose amid general criticism of the government’s response to the influx of refugees, both those eligible for Israeli citizenship and not. The government’s handling of the issue has also been marred by unclear policies, backtracking and occasional in-fighting.

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