The High Court of Justice on Tuesday criticized the state’s policy toward asylum seekers in a session about a challenge to the deposits law, by which 20 percent of asylum-seekers’ wages are withheld by the state, pending their departure from the country.
Statistics from the Population and Immigration Authority show the number of asylum seekers who left the country in 2018 was 20 percent lower than in 2017. Justices said the data shows that the law, which took effect in May 2017, didn’t achieve its goals but did deal a harsh blow to asylum seekers.
Justice Yitzhak Amit pointed to a thwarted government deal with the United Nations and said, “The country had an agreement in hand with the UN commission that would have permitted the exit of 16,000 people at once. Are we not supposed to take this into account? The state didn’t want it (the agreement),” Amit said.
Amit said that in order to examine the deposits law, the court must also examine the other options by which the sought-after goal could have been achieved.
“It has been said that there was a fantastic way to get a great number of asylum seekers to leave and the state preferred to give up that idea in favor of a means that involves mistreatment,” he said. “Why should we ignore the fact that there was an alternative means?”
Representing the state, attorney Shosh Shmueli replied that “the agreement [with the UN] is not on the table.”
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The session was held before an enlarged panel of seven justices headed by the court’s president, Esther Hayut, who expressed doubt about the law’s effectiveness.
“If we look at the numbers of people whose wages are consistently deducted, barely 10 percent of them have asked to leave,” Hayut said.
Hayut said the state wasn’t properly handling the asylum seekers. “If they would handle the applications filed by asylum seekers, they could determine which people have arrived and don’t deserve the protection we have given them,” she said. “If they distinguished between those who have arrived for reasons recognized under the law and those who have no reason to stay here, then matters would be much improved.”
The petition was filed by the workers’ rights NGO Kav LaOved, Assaf, an organization that helps refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, the Hotline for Refugees and Immigrants, the Association for the Rights of African Refugees, Physicians for Human Rights, the African Refugee Development Center, and a restaurants’ association.
Attorney Michal Tajer of Kav LaOved said, “The law is now in effect for two years, in which time poverty has grown, bureaucracy has worsened in a way that’s difficult to describe and everything is on the rise except for the numbers of people leaving Israel.”
Shmueli said the state doesn’t confiscate the money from asylum seekers. “We withhold it,” she said. Amit said in response, “This reminds me of the definition of theft, which includes a theft that isn’t permanent. It’s still theft.”
Shai Barman, director-general of the restaurants’ association, said that “not only is the law not achieving its aims, to hasten the exit of asylum seekers, but we are seeing that the pace of the asylum seekers’ exits from the country have declined by 20 percent since the law went on the books.”
Barman said, “The law has forced us, the employers, to be criminals because of technical and bureaucratic difficulties in carrying out the deposits procedure. The law’s requirement that we, the employers, seize a fifth of employees’ wages each month is unprecedented and doesn’t pass the test of reality. The law should be rescinded immediately.”
A report by Kav LaOved two days earlier said the deposits law has meant that about half of asylum seekers are earning less than the minimum wage. “The state cannot enforce the law, which has led to many employers gleaning the 20 percent of wages without depositing them and thereby robbing many works of their wages,” the report said.
The study examined pay slips and deposits for 2,573 employees and found that in 15 percent of the cases, employers deducted money from wages but kept it for themselves and didn’t make any deposit on the employee’s behalf. In 30 percent of cases, only some of the money was deposited. The Population and Immigration Registry checked 42 cases from this period, between May 2017 and November 2018
Figures published by Assaf in July illustrate the blow that the law has dealt to asylum seekers. Last year there was a 35 percent rise in reports by asylum seekers of having economic difficulties and a 33 percent rise in requests for food aid packages. Families said their children went to school hungry, they had stopped paying health insurance for their children, and their employment conditions had worsened. Women told of being forced into prostitution to make ends meet.