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Ukraine Says Israel Promises To Reinstate Refugee Health Care

Israel canceled refugee health care benefits last week, leaving 14,000 elderly Ukrainians without care

Israel canceled health care funding for 14,000 Ukrainian refugees last week, attracting international and domestic criticism. But on Monday, the Ukrainian foreign minister said his Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, had promised to reverse the measure.

We don’t know what to do when the last of our medicine runs out

Without basic health coverage, thousands of elderly Ukrainian refugees fear for their lives.

“We don’t know what to do when the last of our medicine runs out,” said Lev Leizerovich, whose in-laws, Svetlana Fishchenko and Vsevolod Andrus, escaped Ukraine and now live with him and his wife Katerina in Harish, Israel.

“In the event of an emergency, we can go to the emergency room,” Leizerovich told The Media Line, “but everything else” must be paid for out-of-pocket.

Leizerovich’s mother-in-law requires thyroid medication, and his father requires cancer medication. The out-of-pocket cost of both and the medical appointments needed to get the prescriptions is prohibitive. CT and MIRI scans, moreover, cost nearly 10,000 Israeli shekels, or $2,600. “I don’t know what Israeli family of immigrants and elderly can pay for this,” Leizerovich said.

Elena Kharchenko is in the same boat. The 62-year-old escaped from Dnipro 18 months ago and lives with her daughter and grandchildren in the Israeli town of Holon.

Kharchenko suffers from a heart condition for which she had two open-heart surgeries in Ukraine, and she was scheduled for another surgery in Israel in August. But her insurance and treatments were canceled the day before her final pre-surgery checkup. “We can do the surgery,” she told The Media Line, “but only if we can guarantee to pay the 110,000 shekels ($29,200) bill.”

Asked why they don’t formally immigrate to Israel for the sake of health insurance; especially when related to Israeli citizens, Leizerovich explains that he already tried and failed. They were told that, despite family connections to Jews and Israelis, they weren’t related closely enough to be eligible for immigration.

Meanwhile, Kharchenko’s daughter gained citizenship through her marriage to an Israeli. Elena may qualify for immigration under a “family unification” scheme, but getting official approval would be a steep uphill battle.

Over 14,000 Ukrainians who do not qualify for citizenship fled to Israel after the Russian invasion. Half are women and children, and half are elderly. Most speak little to no Hebrew and have no family or support network in the country. And even those with support struggle with their limited legal status and growing expenses.

The refugees remain in Israel under periodically extended tourist visas. However, Israel does not recognize them legally as refugees, which means they don’t qualify for essential social services. Thus, while they are legally allowed to work, they can’t open bank accounts.

Israel in the last few years has basically prevented refugees from getting services. You can fill out the forms and apply for refugee status. … But no one will check it, giving rise to the myth that refugee status doesn’t exist in Israel.

Maya Ann, a volunteer organizer for Ukrainian refugees in Israel, told The Media Line, “Israel in the last few years has basically prevented refugees from getting services. You can fill out the forms and apply for refugee status. … But no one will check it, giving rise to the myth that refugee status doesn’t exist in Israel.”

Israel’s stiff reluctance to formally acknowledge refugee or asylum status dates to the country’s opposition to absorbing African asylum seekers who primarily arrived from Sudan and Eritrea.

Israel’s governments have historically worried that absorbing too many non-Jews would undermine the Jewish character of the state. But international human rights law obligates all countries to uphold the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the expulsion of a person to territories where they may be persecuted. When there are substantial grounds for believing that an asylum seeker would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return, including persecution, torture, ill-treatment, or other serious human rights violations, they cannot be forced to return to their home country, whether they are from Sudan or Ukraine. In Israel, they’re allowed to stay and work, but they’re not entitled to socioeconomic benefits.

Attorney Orly Levinson-Sela, the head of public advocacy for ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, explains to The Media Line that some 90% of such applicants would be recognized as refugees in most any European state “whereas in Israel, they are considered ‘asylum seekers’ if they’ve submitted an asylum application; ‘infiltrators’ if they came through the Sinai border from Egypt—or simply ‘foreigners who cannot be deported.’”

Russia officially invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. It was a sharp escalation of what’s referred to as the Russo-Ukrainian War, which began with Ukraine’s ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the near-immediate aftermath.

Since the onset of Russia’s invasion, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have fled to Israel despite Jerusalem’s reluctance to absorb them.

Under then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, the Israeli government tried to cap the influx of Ukrainians over the aforementioned demographic concerns. But the quota cap was later lifted by Israel’s Supreme Court, paving the way for a compromise.

Unwilling to grant full refugee status, Israel devised a unique plan to be managed by a new branch of the Welfare Ministry.

Under the plan’s terms, Ukrainian refugees who arrived after the official start of the war would automatically be counted as tourists with special rights. Those under 60 can work, receive essential medical services, and purchase private traveler medical insurance. However, preventative care is not included, meaning that children with chronic diseases or special needs do not get proper treatment.

Refugees older than 60, on the other hand, were to receive primary health care from Israeli providers. But with tourist visas renewing month to month, securing adequate health care has been a bureaucratic nightmare.

“It’s not possible to make an appointment with a specialist in Israel a month in advance,” says Levinson-Sela. “You need at least three months. So the elderly couldn’t make appointments because the health fund refused to approve appointments for dates beyond the end date of their tourist visas … especially when it wasn’t clear if the visa would be extended.”

And when the Finance Ministry pulled health care funding on August 9, 2023, subsidies for essential services abruptly stopped. Meanwhile, refugees who arrived before the official start of the war did not qualify for health care at all, with a few exceptions.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba now claims a solution is on the horizon. On Monday, he tweeted that he had spoken with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who assured him that “health insurance for Ukrainians in Israel will remain in place; the problem will be resolved soon.”

Details have yet to come out on how and when the funding will be reinstated, and there has been no explanation for why the budget was canceled.

The Finance and Foreign Affairs ministries did not respond to The Media Line’s requests for comment.

Video production: Dario Sanchez

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