Oz unit deported just 700 foreign workers; 2,500 left voluntarily
The new enforcement unit set up to reduce the number of illegal foreign workers has deported only 669 workers since it began operating in July. But more than three times that number - almost 2,500 - have left voluntarily, according to an internal report prepared by the unit, Oz.
The report, of which Haaretz obtained a copy, said 2,433 workers left voluntarily and another 104 are in the process.
Even if all these departures are chalked up to Oz, the unit is still far short of its target. According to the cabinet decision that established the unit, it aims to get rid of 20,000 illegal foreign workers this year and 100,000 by the end of 2013, out of the estimated 280,000 illegals in the country as of January.
But it is far from clear that all voluntary departures can be credited to Oz. First, according to attorney Oded Feller of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, there is no guarantee that the figures are accurate. When Oz's predecessor, the Immigration Police, published its first data, "the state comptroller found that the numbers were inflated by 30 percent," Feller said.
Moreover, some of the voluntary departures could be people who left because their visas happened to expire, or who left for some reason unconnected to Oz, he said.
Nevertheless, Feller acknowledged that "there is no doubt that when there is vigorous deterrent activity against hiring illegals, it has an impact. During the period of the Immigration Police, very few [employers] were fined, but there was a campaign that led to a wave of dismissals of African janitors," who then reconsidered whether to stay.
"When it's hard to find work, that encourages departures," he said. Thus recently enacted legislation that raised fines on those who hire illegals "will surely have an effect."
But "so does the knowledge that there is an [enforcement] unit operating and making noise and creating a feeling of fear and talking about arresting children," he said. "That generates fear among the parents and a preference for leaving voluntarily rather than having their children experience such things."
Nevertheless, the data raise the question of whether deportation is necessary at all. Might intensive efforts at persuasion be more effective than pursuit and imprisonment? Or maybe it would be better to focus on punishing employers of illegal foreigners?
Since Oz, which is part of the Interior Ministry, began operating, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor has fined 382 employers in a parallel operation. The minimum fine is NIS 5,000, while the legal maximum is NIS 100,000.
The Interior Ministry insisted that "trying to disconnect the Oz unit's intensive activity from the voluntary departure of foreigners denies reality. It is impossible to ignore that ongoing enforcement activity has left its mark via the fact that many foreigners, including families, prefer to leave voluntarily and not wait for decisions and enforcement."
Meir Gopstein, who heads Oz's voluntary departure section, agreed. "We see parents of children who turn to us of their own initiative," he said. "In July, there were many applications before the [scheduled] expulsion deadline" for illegals with children, though this number dropped after the government postponed the deadline, he added.
But MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), a member of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, says the figures "expose the big lie behind the Interior Ministry's exhibitionist deportation policy," though he focuses on a different aspect of the problem.
"Thousands are leaving Israel or are being deported, but at the same time, we are bringing in new foreign workers via the revolving-door system so that various middlemen and labor contractors can earn fat fees off them," he charged.