A highly publicized Israeli plan to grant refugee status to 100 orphaned Syrian appears to be stuck in bureaucratic limbo, and the government ministry responsible is at a loss to explain why.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri authorized the absorption of the orphans into Israel in January, but since then the ministry has gone quiet on the issue.
Last week’s chemical attack in Syria, which was condemned in Israel as “a stain on humanity,” has not spurred the government into action on the matter.
Sabin Hadad, the spokesperson for the Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA), a branch of the Interior Ministry, denied that Israel has dropped its decision to absorb the Syrians. “We are waiting to be told that there are permits from the necessary authority,” she told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
But when asked who exactly PIBA — which normally approves entry visas — was waiting to get permits from, she had no details, other than to say it is “complicated.”
When announced, the plan called for giving 100 orphaned Syrian children temporary residency status that would become permanent after four years. They were supposed to be integrated into Arab Israeli families.
Furthermore, any of the children’s immediate relatives were also to be considered for refugee status.
“The answer is that we are not involved in the process and are waiting for the okay to move forward,” Hadad said Wednesday. “Because there are many factors in the process, many approvals are needed along the way.”
Hadad said the project was meant to be carried out in coordination with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
A spokesperson for the UN agency declined to comment.
Professor Nir Boms, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and a prominent activist pushing for Israel to do more to to help Syrians, told The Times of Israel that there appeared to be no political will to carry out the plan.
“If the prime minister is keen to advance the plan, he can do more by instructing relevant agencies to further pursue it,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
“There was a certain process of investigation to see if this was feasible. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible,” Boms said.
According to Hadad, the original plan was for Israel to absorb Syrians who have already taken refuge in Europe from the now six-year-long civil war.
Gal Lusky, the head of Israel Flying Aid, an NGO that has been active in bringing humanitarian aid from Israel to Syria, said that Israel sought her advice on the issue and she “personally recommended the government bypass UNHCR and do it on its own.”
She said she pushed for Israel to take orphans who are still in Syria rather than in Europe, adding that the idea had been floating around for three years, and 1,500 Israeli families have already pledged to foster Syrian children.
“It’s just a matter of a decision, which lies with the prime minister,” she said.
The war was catapulted back into top headlines after an April 4 gas attack on the opposition-held city of Idlib killed over 80 people and injured over 200, many of them children.
The attack was widely blamed, including by Israel, on the Syrian government led by Bashar Assad, though Damascus denied involvement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “sharply condemned” the attack and called on the international community to complete the process of removing all of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
“When I saw pictures of babies suffocating from a chemical attack in Syria, I was shocked and outraged. There’s no, none, no excuse whatsoever for the deliberate attacks on civilians and on children, especially with cruel and outlawed chemical weapons,” he said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called the pictures coming out of Syria a “stain on all humanity.”
“We’ll continue to aid the survivors of the horrors in Syria. We know all too well how dangerous silence can be, and cannot remain mute,” he added.
On Sunday, the high-level Israeli security cabinet met in the wake of the gas attack and agreed to weigh a proposal to bring Syrian children wounded in last week’s chemical weapons attack to Israel for treatment.
However, even at this meeting and despite all the outrage expressed by Israeli leaders, the plan to absorb 100 Syrians was not mentioned, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
Israel has treated many of those wounded in the Syrian conflict for the past several years. Israel maintains a field hospital at the border, and around 3,000 Syrians have been treated in Israel since December 2013, according to the Israeli army.
The official line from the Israeli army is that it will treat any Syrian who requires serious medical assistance, no matter who they are. Medical assistance to Syrian civil war casualties, the IDF says, is a humanitarian initiative.