Israel Admits Failure to Use Budgeted Funds to Aid At-risk Asylum Seekers

Ministry says it hasn't provided assistance over the past two years, despite being given millions of shekels

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Two asylum seekers in Israel.
Two asylum seekers in Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Social Affairs Ministry has admitted that in the past two years it hasn’t provided any assistance to asylum seekers with disabilities or those working as sex workers, although the Finance Ministry has given it millions of shekels for this purpose.

In a document from June a ministry official wrote that the assistance hadn’t been provided due to “lack of response to the medical needs issue” and because “no budget was allocated” to help sex workers. The document also shows that in 2017-2018, when the ministry started getting funds for this purpose, it spent only six million shekels out of the 20 million it received for taking care of asylum seekers at risk – including female violence victims and homeless people.

An inter-ministerial committee recommended a comprehensive plan last year to help the asylum seekers, at a cost of an additional 26 million shekels, but its conclusions were not published or implemented.

Assaf, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, has referred to the ministry dozens of cases of asylum seekers – many of them middle aged – who were living in the streets after losing their ability to make a living. But the ministry often ignores them, despite the promise made by Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz in May 2018 to take care of these groups.

One asylum seeker is Dwight (fictitious name), 74, who suffers from acute pain in his leg and uses a walking stick. He fled Eritrea about a decade ago and until six months ago worked as a street cleaner in Bat Yam. At work he was run over by a hit and run driver and was badly hurt. He can no longer work, and after a long hospitalization he returned to the apartment he was sharing with others, to find that all his belongings had been thrown into the stairwell. Having no place to go to, he slept in the stairwell for three weeks.

Since July, Haaretz as well as other organizations approached Assaf in a bid to help Dwight, but received no response. “I won’t be able to survive like this,” he said. I’ve always worked and managed on my own. A relative sent me 700 shekels, but that ran out too. I’m in great pain, I need surgery, I live on water and rice. Perhaps soon I’ll have to sleep in the garden. It’s not easy at my age.”

In a document Katz sent in May 2018 to MK Aida Touma-Sliman, he undertook to spend three million shekels every year on disabled asylum seekers. But his ministry did not keep the promise.

“Foreigners who are not deportable were not placed in any of the ministry’s disabilities department’s out-of-home frameworks, mainly because there was no way to address their medical needs,” the June document says.

Katz also wrote that his ministry would invest 1.2 million shekels a year to help asylum seekers working as sex workers, but the current document contradicts that promise. It notes “this group wasn’t included in the state comptroller’s report and the money wasn’t allocated to the out-of-home services plan set up for refugees at risk who are not deportable.”

This is why, ministry officials say, “money wasn’t earmarked to begin with for this purpose and no services were set up for these people. In the absence of further response in issues pertaining to health, mental health, housing, employment, survival allocations and the like – we are unable to offer effective rehabilitation to African women in prostitution.”

The document also says asylum seekers at risk who received assistance – battered women, disabled and homeless people – did not receive the full sum allocated to them. In fact, less than one third of the annual budget was used in the past two years. In 2017 3.1 million shekels were used out of 10 million, and last year – 2.97 million out of 10 million were used.

Before that the Social Affairs Ministry did not receive a sum earmarked for this purpose and would refer female asylum seekers at risk to battered women’s shelters from time to time. The updated document shows that in 2017 the entire sum used was spent on 25 women from Sudan and Eritrea, who had already been in shelters, while all the homeless and disabled people and sex workers received no assistance at all.

Last year, too, most of the money went to the shelters, and only six homeless people received assistance, at a cost of 570,000 shekels.

The ministry wrote they didn’t help homeless refugees because the treatment “started only in 2018, due to the unsuitability of the rates for clients that don’t pay any copayments.”

Meanwhile the ministry has begun passing some of the responsibility to the Health Ministry, claiming that its own assistance depends on the existence of health insurance, which is under the Health Ministry’s responsibility.

The Health Ministry said in response that they have been examining possible solutions to the problem in recent months, although they have been familiar with the issue for years.

In April the ministry had a meeting to discuss the insurance of asylum seekers and at the end of the meeting it was decided to examine giving them a certain kind of insurance. But they concluded they could not do so due to the relatively small number of people in this group.

Sources familiar with the details said that for this reason there is no possibility to insure the asylum seekers, and that the examination was held only for appearance’s sake.