The Tel Aviv municipality has closed down businesses run by asylum seekers and warned city hall contractors not to employ immigrants without work permits, in a crackdown on refugees over recent weeks.
A month ago, the municipality, the police and the Interior Ministry's Oz unit, which deals with deportation, began an enforcement campaign to shut down refugees' businesses near the central bus station and the Neveh Sha'anan pedestrian mall.
City hall has also told firms supplying its cleaning services that from April they will only be allowed to employ foreigners with work permits, despite the fact that most of these contract workers are known to be refugees from Sudan and Eritrea who are working illegally.
The Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel University's law faculty and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel intend to petition the High Court of Justice, citing the court's decision on work permits last year. Justice Edna Arbel, who headed a panel of judges hearing a previous petition, ruled at that time that "the position of the state, according to which it will not issue work permits, while insisting that at this stage no enforcement will be applied against those employing [refugees], is accepted as balanced, considering the difficult and sensitive reality."
In 2011, the Tel Aviv municipality employed more than 800 contract workers through 18 different firms, mostly for cleaning services. Many of the workers are asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, who form a vast majority of refugees in Israel. The state has decided not to deport them due to the turmoil in their home countries, but they are not allowed to work. Their requests are not examined individually, meaning they cannot receive protected status or a work permit.
Until recently, the municipality has not prevented them from being employed as contract workers.
In a letter that reached Haaretz recently, Yehoshua Niv, deputy director of the municipality's accounts department, wrote to companies using contract workers: "I hereby remind you that, according to the contract you signed with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, you must employ only Israeli citizens or foreign workers with a work permit and valid visa. A failure to act according to this guideline will be seen as a breach of contract, and will enable the municipality to act according to law.
"The municipality will demand to see, as of April 2012, the work permits and visas of all your employees," he added.
The enforcement campaign around the central bus station, which began a month ago, led to the closure of four businesses run by asylum seekers, 15 administrative closure orders and 21 indictment recommendations. Several of the businesses shut down, but others, sources say, continue to operate. Their operators say they have no other way to make a living.
Yuval Livnat, of the Refugee Rights Clinic says the authorities place asylum seekers in an impossible situation. "The efforts to intimidate employers on the one hand, and to prevent asylum seekers from opening businesses on the other, are in fact a pincer movement aimed at leaving asylum seekers unable to support themselves."
Livnat added that without permits, one can expect a black market to thrive. "I don't see what the authorities stand to gain by these actions," he added. "It seems that as long as they're here, and there's no intention of deporting them, these people should be allowed to make a living."
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai is under immense pressure from inhabitants of the city's southern neighborhoods to stop a perceived influx of asylum seekers. Last month, he wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to act against asylum seekers, who, he said, "transform" whole neighborhoods. "The State of Israel can no longer ignore the influx of infiltrators that rises every day, and that we all know now are actually foreign workers who do not face any danger in their homeland," Huldai wrote.
According to the municipality's data, 40,000 illegal foreign workers live in Tel Aviv, in addition to 20,000 asylum seekers.