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Israel ends expedited immigration track for Russians and Belarusians fleeing war

Immigration Ministry will maintain fast-tracked program for Ukrainians and special cases, but says it wants to focus on absorbing the massive wave of people who arrived last year

By Lazar Berman and ToI Staff, April 21, 2023

Israel will halt special procedures meant to help Russian and Belarusians expedite immigration to Israel, the ministry in charge of the program said Friday. At the same time, the government will leave the process in place for Ukrainians seeking to move to Israel, the office of Immigration and Absorption Minister Ofir Sofer told The Times of Israel Friday. The ministry had set up “one-stop shops” around Israel for immigrants from the three countries after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. After a series of deliberations with his staff along with other authorities, Sofer ordered that procedures in place before the war resume for those coming from Russia and Belarus. While helping Ukrainians fleeing the Russian onslaught has been Jerusalem’s top priority, it is Russians — and to a much smaller extent Belarusians — who have made up the vast majority of new immigrants as they seek to avoid mandatory conscription and feared escalation in human rights abuses by the Kremlin. With the resumption of previous rules, Russians and Belarusians will now have to open an immigration file with the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, secure a meeting at an Israeli consulate to have their eligibility examined and complete other bureaucratic steps. Only then can they go to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry to receive new immigrant residency status. Those barred from the expedited track but who fear waiting in Russia or Belarus until authorities approve their citizenship will now need to live in Israel without residency status for months until their applications are approved through the much more arduous process. During that time, they will face restrictions on their ability to receive a salary, rent an apartment and receive medical treatment. Sofer’s office told The Times of Israel Friday that he decided to revisit the procedures due to the dramatic decrease in those arriving without proper paperwork. The ministry also said it now wants to place more of a focus on the absorption process for the massive wave of immigrants from the last year. “Ukrainians demanding to [immigrate], and special humanitarian cases from Russia will continue to receive service in the form of the one-stop shop as was the case until now,” a ministry spokesperson told The Times of Israel. The spokesperson added that those who arrived in Israel before April 15 but did not finish their immigration process will now have to work through the Nativ organization, which deals with immigration from Russian-speaking countries, and the Population Authority, though only starting on June 15. Sofer instructed the ministry to show sensitivity toward humanitarian cases and to make sure every immigrant receives the response they need, said the ministry. If immigration rates change, Sofer is willing to reassess the closure of the expedited services for Russians and Belarusians. In December, the Knesset Research and Information Center reported that from March through October 2022, 29,133 immigrants arrived from Russia, 13,570 from Ukraine and 1,580 from Belarus. Though Belarus has not joined in the war, tens of thousands of Russian troops invaded Ukraine from its northern neighbor, and Russian forces continue to be deployed there. Belarus has mandatory conscription, and many citizens fear that Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko may yet decide to join in the effort to support his close ally, Vladimir Putin. Some fear that the decision comes at a particularly critical time, as Putin last week signed legislation that will allow military conscription orders to be delivered electronically, making it more difficult for Russians to dodge the draft and more likely for them to seek to flee the country.

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