Asylum Seekers in Israel Angry Over New Law Making Them Deposit 20% of Pay

Critics say 'Israel knows it can’t forcibly expel asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan and doesn’t want to give them refugee status so it is doing everything it can to have them leave ‘voluntarily''

Asylum seekers protesting outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, January 26, 2017.
Emil Salman

New rules requiring asylum seekers in Israel to deposit 20 percent of their salaries in a special fund that will repay them only when they leave the country has not only refugees but activists and employers – who are required to deposit another 16% of the salaries in the fund – up in arms.

Israel had more than 22,000 asylum seekers within its borders as of the end of February, mainly from Ukraine, Georgia, Eritrea and Sudan. With requests running at a rate of 1,600 to 1,900 applications a month in the first quarter of the year, according to figures recently obtained by Haaretz, the government’s reception hours for applicants have been cut back.

Kav L’Oved (Workers Hotline), a nonprofit that helps asylum seekers and other non-citizens obtain their rights, asserted that the new law that went into effect May 1 is designed to discourage new applicants and coerce them to leave.

“The State of Israel knows it can’t forcibly expel asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan and doesn’t want to give them refugee status so it is doing everything it can to have them leave ‘voluntarily,’” the organization said.

“The new law is another, unprecedented step in a war against one of the weakest sectors of society, one which should be protected,” said the organization, which has petitioned the High Court of Justice to block the legislation, which it termed “cynical and malevolent.”

Under Section 4 of the Law for Preventing Infiltrators and Ensuring Their Departure, asylum seekers must deposit 20% of their salaries and their employers another 16%.

Jamal, a refugee from Sudan who works at a hotel in Israel, said he wouldn’t be able to make it financially with the new deductions, which come on top of the income tax and social security payments he has to make like other Israelis.

“It will be a lot of pressure on people to leave the country, but we have nowhere to go back to. The situation in Sudan is dangerous and that isn’t an option,” said Jamal, who asked not to be identified by his last name.

“I make 5,000 shekels [$1,390] a month but an apartment costs more than 2,000 shekels and I have to pay municipal tax, water, electricity, gas, income tax and National Insurance. I have to pay everything. What will I do if they take another 20%? I can’t live on that and I have nowhere to go.”

Jonathan Borovitch, a well-known chef and head of the Restaurants Association, has issued a call to arms on Facebook: “Restaurateurs, chefs, members of the food industry and all the employers of foreign workers, the Israeli government decided to put its hand deeply into our depleted pockets with nothing but a miserable excuse,” he wrote.

“That’s double what we set aside for an Israeli citizen. ... It will be a bottomless pit. The chance of a foreign worker leaving the country getting these funds, after a difficult bureaucratic route, is near zero,” he added.

To ensure that an asylum seeker is really leaving, the only place authorized by the government to make the payout is the Mizrahi Tefahot Bank at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The bank won a contract to provide the service but said the terms and payout of the deposit were set by the government.