Asylum Seekers Struggle to Make Ends Meet After Israel Enforces Cash Deposit

In the six months since a law requiring asylum seekers to pay 20% of their salaries to the state went into effect, families are struggling: 'My girls don’t get everything they need,' a mother says

An asylum seeker in South Tel Aviv
Ilan Assayag

Tzaga, a 29-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea, works in a minimarket in Rishon Letzion every day from morning until it closes late at night. Over the past six months, since the so-called deposit law went into effect, requiring Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to deposit 20 percent of their salaries for a special fund that will repay them only when they leave the country, many of them find it difficult to make a living.

After the 20-percent deduction, Tzaga’s monthly salary totals 4,200 shekels ($1,200); Israel’s legal minimum wage is 5,300 shekels for a 43-hour work week. “Everything I buy less,” she says. “Less food, less clothes, less shoes. My girls don’t get everything they need.”

Since the implementation of the law, Tzaga has had to give up after-school activity for her two daughters, ages 7 and 9. “They stay home alone until 11 P.M.,” she says. She and her daughters live in a one-room apartment in south Tel Aviv. “One room, one bed for us all. The kitchen, living room, all is there. 2,550 shekels a month with electricity,” she says. She cannot afford medical treatments either. “My eldest doesn’t feel well, she doesn’t sleep at night. She has toothache, but can’t go to the doctor because there’s no money,” she says.

Next week the High Court of Justice will hear a petition filed by human rights organizations against the deposit law.

Other asylum seekers told Haaretz they have to do without food and medical treatments. In one case parents took their children out of nursery school and put them at a friend’s apartment. In another case a single mother gave up her child’s afternoon day care center. Some asylum seekers have to work at additional, illegal jobs, without a pay slip and legal benefits, to make ends meet.

“Working 250-300 hours a month for 6,000 shekels before the 20 percent deduction and taxes is not right. This is not a dignified living,” says Workers’ Hotline lawyer Michal Tajar. “Can a single mother of four with no income supplement, no health or welfare services, no public housing, exist on 6,000 shekels before deducting 20 percent and taxes?”

According to the state’s figures, most asylum seekers earn 5,000-9,000 shekels a month and some even make 15,000-20,000 shekels a month. The petitioners, however, say most asylum seekers earn less than minimum wage, and since the implementation of the law, the number of refugees seeking mental health treatment has risen by 50 percent, and many more of them need help with food and other expenses.

Tespa, 27, an asylum seeker from Eritrea and a caretaker in an old folks’ home in Tel Aviv, works six days a week, up to 13 hours a day. By herself she is raising two children, ages 4 and 10, who hardly ever see their mother. Before the deposit law she worked only five days a week at eight-hour shifts, but now can’t afford the expenses.

After the deduction her salary comes to 4,400 a month, she says. “I work on Shabbat too, for many hours. I have one day’s holiday a week. The money isn’t enough for anything, after they take off the deposit,” she says.

Tespa, who lives with her children in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Quarter, has had to move to a smaller, cheaper apartment. “It’s very small, the children sleep with me in the room,” she says. “The children are alone. One, who is 10, helps me a little. On Saturday he looks after his sister, who has day-care center until 6 P.M. Sometimes I take her to work.” Another asylum seeker, a 34-year-old man from Darfur, works “under the table” like many of his friends, due to the deposit law. He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and three small children. At the beginning of the year he worked in a garage and earned about 7,000 shekels a month. The deduction left him with about 5,500 shekels, so he left the garage and is working in construction, with no pay slip or legal benefits, to increase his net pay. He has given up on basic food products, bus rides and telephone calls.

Cassie, an Eritrean asylum seeker, 26, lives in Rehovot with her husband and two children, ages 1 and 2. She works at cleaning and her husband in construction. Together they make less than 8,000 shekels. Due to a debt at the children’s health fund, the deposit law meant the children couldn’t get medical treatments. The parents took the children out of the nursery school and gave them to a friend who looks after them and other children in a one-room apartment.

Some 35,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan live in Israel. But the figures the state gave the High Court of Justice for the petition hearing indicate that employers have deposited money for only 3,000-5,000 asylum seekers in the fund. This means that most employers – who are supposed to deduct another 16 percent of the salary at their own expense – haven’t deposited anything yet.

The state says in its response to the court that the law is intended to give “infiltrators an economic incentive to leave Israel” as well as “protect the rights of the infiltrating workers.”