Jerusalem, 26 May 2000

Sharansky Meets UN Refugee Commissioner Ogata
(Communicated by the Interior Ministry Spokesman)

Interior Minister Natan Sharansky yesterday (Thursday) 25.5.2000, met with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Mrs. Sadako Ogata and informed her of his decision to establish a "national status-granting body" headed by a justice emeritus to submit recommendations on the handling of requests for asylum status. The final decision on any request would remain the responsibility of the Interior Minister. The body would cooperate with the UN representative for refugees in Israel, but its recommendations will be formalized in a sovereign manner.

The body would initially operate for one year, after which appropriate lessons would be learned regarding further handling of the issue. It should be noted that Israel is the first country in the Middle East that has agreed to establish a body of this type and the UN, for its part, will work to find sanctuary for any person requesting refugee status arriving in Israel from a hostile country.

Minister Sharansky said that although the State of Israel has until now operated without such a body, it has taken in various groups including 1,200 Vietnamese boat people, 300 Kosovars – some of whom were granted Israeli citizenship a few weeks ago – and 100 Sierra Leoneans. Israel also receives approximately 200 requests annually for refugee status, mainly from illegal aliens residing in Israel, of which about 20 are granted each year.

Minister Sharansky asked for High Commissioner Ogata’s help, should it become necessary, in locating SLA personnel and their families scattered across the world. He briefed High Commissioner Ogata on the Ministry’s handling of the 6,400 SLA refugees and their families who entered Israel this past week. They have received "tourist status" for one year including work permits, medical insurance and national insurance – in effect, the conditions of temporary residents, except for the right to vote.

Over the coming year, the refugees will decide what they wish to do. Israel will respect any decision and provide assistance. Anyone requesting to remain in Israel and receive citizenship will be accepted. The Minister had personal conversations with many individuals who asked to be reunited with their families. The Interior Ministry will make every effort to help them do so, and he has asked UN assistance to unite families located in third countries.

High Commissioner Ogata welcomed Minister Sharansky’s decision on the establishment of the national status-granting body. Regarding the Minister’s request for assistance in family reunifications for SLA personnel, she stated that the request is unusual and each request would be examined individually.

The High Commissioner asked Minister Sharansky on the status of refugees in the territories. The Minister stated that the issue is part of the peace negotiation between the parties, and that it would better not to establish "another secret channel" on the issue but to leave to the interested parties to make a decision.