Government Panel Urges That Welfare Services Be Granted to Neediest Asylum Seekers

The proposal, which was submitted to the interior and social affairs ministers, suggests allocating $7 million to provide services to asylum seekers

Lee Yaron
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Migrants from Eritrea rest outside a building, used to house people waiting to be smuggled into Israel, near the Egyptian-Israeli border in Sinai, on December 25, 2010.
Migrants from Eritrea rest outside a building, used to house people waiting to be smuggled into Israel, near the Egyptian-Israeli border in Sinai.Credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih
Lee Yaron

An inter-ministerial task force has recommended that municipal welfare services be opened in part to asylum seekers. But disputes between different ministries are preventing the recommendations from being approved.

The proposal, which was submitted to the interior and social affairs ministers, suggests allocating 26 million shekels ($7 million) for this purpose.

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Currently, municipal welfare departments provide no services to asylum seekers unless the asylum seeker’s life is in danger. ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, has petitioned the High Court of Justice over this issue, arguing that the state is obligated to provide welfare services to everyone who needs them, including people with no legal status in Israel.

Following a 2014 state comptroller’s report on the issue, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit set up a task force to look into it, headed by Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority. The panel also included officials from the social affairs, housing, interior, health and justice ministries.

The task force decided that welfare departments should help five categories of asylum seekers – battered women, the homeless, children at risk, the disabled and people who are particularly distressed for some other reason. But other asylum seekers who need welfare assistance – for instance, those who are simply poor – would not be entitled to aid.

So far, however, disputes between ministries have prevented these recommendations from being approved. Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz has demanded that if the budget allocated to local welfare departments for helping asylum seekers runs out, the Finance Ministry be required to make up the shortfall rather than having the extra money come from the Social Affairs Ministry.

Another unresolved issue is whether the Health Ministry will pay for medical care for asylum seekers entitled to welfare services.

A source in the Social Affairs Ministry said his ministry “is in favor of resolving this issue and opening the departments, something we sometimes do even today, without getting a budget for it. We’re in favor of giving them welfare services. But we insist on making sure that it won’t come at other people’s expense.”

There is a High Court of Justice hearing on the issue scheduled for Monday. Last week the state had asked the court for a 90-day extension to complete its work on the issue.

The petition, filed in 2016, states, “Asylum seekers live in Israel legally, based on the residency permits give them by the Population and Immigration Authority. Many of them are coping with numerous difficulties after they’ve been through very harsh events like rape, kidnappings, and abuse, and as a result they are suffering from post-traumatic stress. Many of them are in constant survival mode as the result of deliberate policies of the State of Israel, which defines their stay in Israel as temporary, without eligibility for benefits. Many of the asylum seekers are employed at odd jobs, with no job security and at low wages. These men and women constitute one of the weakest and neediest populations in Israel. … We are talking about a policy that defies the wording of the law, an administrative decision made without any authority that is discriminatory and contravenes international law and [Israeli] Basic Laws.”

Back in 2014, the state comptroller determined that the policy of not treating asylum seekers contravenes the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, and raises difficulties regarding international conventions Israel has signed. “It’s doubtful if welfare services can identify foreigners who are at risk, because foreigners’ access to social services is extremely limited,” the comptroller wrote at the time. “There is a real concern that the response given to these weak and vulnerable groups as a result of implementing said policy does not meet the provisions of the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.”

According to Michal Pinchuk, director of Assaf, “The new recommendations from the highest echelons in the government ministries are breaking the lock on doors that have been locked to one of the country’s neediest populations. The opening of welfare bureaus to asylum seekers, including victims of violence, people with disabilities, and victims of torture – all of whom have lived in Israel legally for many years – is the only right, just and moral step.”

She added, “We regret that the recommendations of the professional team, which worked hard to reach an optimal solution, are being delayed because the political echelon does not have the courage to do the right thing and adopt these important recommendations.”

According to attorney Elad Kahana of the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University Law School, which filed the petition, “The Welfare Services Law is meant to assist every person in need and the decision to deny welfare services to asylum seekers is improper. The state’s decision to reexamine the matter is welcome, but this examination has been going on for two years, the result is as yet unknown and meanwhile people who are entitled to assistance by law are in serious distress and aren’t getting help.”