Israel Delays Coronavirus Payments to Asylum Seekers After Right-wing Pressure

Proposed law would allow asylum seekers to receive a portion of their own money being held by the government, deportation activists say they should only get their money when they leave

Or Kashti
Lee Yaron
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Israeli soldiers in south Tel Aviv's Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood, March 31, 2020.
Israeli soldiers in south Tel Aviv's Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood, March 31, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani
Or Kashti
Lee Yaron

The Israeli government is delaying the approval of a law that would allow asylum seekers to withdraw a portion of their money being held by the government in order to better endure the coronavirus crisis. The delay is the result of pressure from right-wing organizations, sources familiar with the details told Haaretz. 

The funds have been accumulated as a result of monthly deductions from workers’ wages that are meant to be returned to asylum seekers in full when they leave the country – a policy that is intended to encourage them to leave Israel. More than a third of asylum seekers’ monthly paychecks are deducted each month for their “deposit fund,” severance pay and other fringe benefits.

The proposed bill would allow asylum seekers to withdraw up to 2,700 shekels ($750) every month. It is estimated that over half the asylum seekers in Israel have lost their jobs during the crisis and they have almost no financial safety net.

South Tel Aviv's Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood at the end of March.
South Tel Aviv's Neveh Sha'anan neighborhood at the end of March. Credit: Moti Milrod

The delay in the law’s approval is due to pressure from organizations and activists who advocate for deportation, as well as fear among senior politicians of being depicted as supporting asylum seekers, according to a number of sources with knowledge of the issue.

The government is refusing to approve a draft version of the law drafted two weeks ago until changes are made to it, sources said.

One change promoted by Public Security Minster Gilad Erdan is to deduct from the deposit any fines imposed on the asylum seekers for violating the new health regulations. Officials in government ministries and human rights organizations criticized the proposal, saying such sanctions are not being imposed on any other group.

Health guidelines distributed in a foreign language in Tel Aviv, March 2020.
Health guidelines distributed in a foreign language in Tel Aviv, March 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Erdan’s office explained that “there is a difficulty in collecting fines that the police give to infiltrators [asylum seekers],” and offsetting the fines would “help strengthen the deterrence in south Tel Aviv.”

Another change is being promoted by deportation activists and seeks to require asylum seekers to return the given deposit, in order to preserve the original purpose of the Deposit Law and encourage asylum seekers to leave Israel. “We are working with government bodies, political groups, ministers, Knesset members and anyone possible to put pressure for our changes,” said Jonathan Jacubowicz, an attorney from the Israeli Immigration Policy Center.

In discussions before the draft of the law was formulated, professional staff in the ministries made it clear that the release of the money was necessary to protect a collapse in the community. Officials estimated that if the law is not approved, thousands will be unable to pay rent and that the situation could deteriorate into violence and crime and further exacerbate the health crisis.

A government official said Tuesday that those advocating against assistance to asylum seekers, must understand that they themselves will be harmed by their disenfranchisement: “Do they really want thousands of hungry families in the street?”

Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline for the Protection of Worker’s Rights said “the time has come to stop the abuse of asylum seekers. The state is holding their money, under the auspices of the Deposit Law against which a petition to the High Court of Justice is pending.

There is no justification to delay the return of money to its owners, especially in a period in which asylum seekers have been left without money for food or shelter.”

Out of about 31,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the bill is supposed to aid some 17,000 people since the rest do not have a deposit fund or its amount is too little, said sources. An earlier-proposed bill to also hand financial assistance to asylum seekers with no deposit fund was rejected at the get-go.

Interior Minister Arye Dery, one of the leaders of the initiatives to deport the asylum seekers form Israel, supports the proposed law. Former justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has spoken out against it and Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said he would unequivocally object to “this crazy move.”

A number of sources pointed to the acting director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Ronen Peretz, as one of those delaying the advancement of the law. The Prime Minister’s Office commented that Peretz is acting only from professional considerations and according to government policy.

Two weeks ago, Haaretz reported that the Prime Minister’s Office preferred to encourage asylum seekers to “leave willingly” for other countries but discovered this was impossible because African countries have closed their borders due to the coronavirus crisis.

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