The Interior Ministry has changed its policy toward asylum seekers, Haaretz learned on Sunday, effectively forbidding them from taking employment while in Israel.

Last week, the Population and Immigration Authority added a new clause to asylum seekers' visas stating: "This temporary permit should not be treated as a work permit." The move, according to employers of these refugees, was unannounced and unexpected, prompting many businesses to hastily contact various aid organizations to find out if they are in breach of new regulations. The Hotline for Migrant Workers immediately received dozens of phone calls from anxious employers threatening to fire the asylum seekers to avoid paying a fine.

Responding to a query from Haaretz, the Population and Immigration Authority said enforcement would begin in early 2011.

In response to a petition submitted by the Clinic for Refugee Rights and the Hotline for Migrant Workers in September, the Interior Ministry pledged not to levy fines on employers until the matter was settled, and to give 30 days' notice before it began imposing fines.

In July the cabinet decided to enforce the law on employers beginning in September, although it did not happen and no notice has been given other than the additional clause on the permit.

In an urgent letter to Yossi Edelstein, who heads the aliens department of the Population and Immigration Authority, Osnat Cohen-Lipshitz of the Hotline for Migrant Workers said that a Knesset Research Department report on the matter in May stated that the Justice Ministry would inform employers and workers that although the permit in question is not a work permit, no steps would be taken against working permit-holders or employers hiring them.

"No doubt these things are very well known to you and there is concern that the Interior Ministry has decided 'to deal with' the continued arrival of asylum-seekers by starving them."

The director of Amnesty International in Israel, Itay Epstein, also wrote to Interior Minister Eli Yishai, nothing that Yishai had told him in August that enforcement would not begin until sustainable solutions are found for the asylum seekers.

The Population and Immigration Authority said in a statement that, "the demand to enforce the prohibition on employing foreign workers was ratified in a government decision and will be implemented in the coming months." The added text was meant to reduce employers' confusion by adding a clause to the asylum seekers' visas that already existed on tourist and foreign workers visas.