'For Lack of Choice,' Israel to Treat Asylum Seekers as Citizens in Coronavirus Crisis

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A street in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2020.
A street in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea will receive the same treatment for the coronavirus as Israelis, and “for lack of choice, they will be seen as an inseparable part of the same epidemiological region,” according to an official document obtained by Haaretz.

Unlike citizens, the 30,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel are not covered by national public health insurance and depend on private insurance, if they are employed.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71: A tale of two crises: Coronavirus vs. Constitution

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They are also not entitled to unemployment benefits or severance pay. Now, most of them have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus crisis. Assistance groups report that the number of asylum seekers asking for donations of food has increased sharply over the past week.

The National Security Council document, which summarizes a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior government ministry officials, also describes the next phases in the response to the virus.

“Despite something of a decline in the rate of infection over the past 24 hours, the current data still leads us to an intolerable reality,” the document asserts. “If we do not take more severe steps, the cost of a mistake could be intolerable. If we begin with a strict approach, we can loosen it according to the data we receive.”

In keeping with this scenario, Netanyahu ordered economic activity in Israel to be reduced by 50 percent.

It was also decided that Israelis returning from abroad who do not have an option for self-isolating at home will be required to enter a municipal isolation facility to be operated by local authorities under the direction of the Interior Ministry. According to the directives, following greater restrictions on movement, Palestinians will not be allowed to remain in Israel unless they are employed in agriculture, nursing and the food industry.

The lack of a safety net for asylum seekers has meanwhile led assistance organizations and the country’s restaurants association to ask Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Interior Minister Arye Dery to release deductions that they must withhold by law. For the past three years, asylum seekers’ employers have been required to deduct 20 percent of their salaries into a fund to be handed over only when they leave the country. A committee headed by the director of the Justice Ministry’s anti-trafficking administration, attorney Dina Dominitz, has been working on a plan to release the money gradually, with the realization that the entire asylum seeker community could collapse if the funds aren’t released.

According to the plan that is now taking form, asylum seekers will be able to receive some of the money, up to 3,000 shekels a month ($841) from the amount that has accumulated. They will not be allowed to withdraw the entire amount, which for many comes to tens of thousands of shekels. Asylum seekers will also be required to pay for their health insurance at the cost of hundreds of shekels a month, and will be able to withdraw additional money to cover this expense, according to the plan now being formulated.

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