An Israeli court ruled on Wednesday that Petah Tikva must register 129 children of asylum seekers for kindergarten after the city's municipality prevented them from enrolling under various bureaucratic pretenses in January.
Attorney Haran Reichman of the Law and Education Policy Clinic at the University of Haifa and Tal Hassin of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition against the city and the Education Ministry last week on behalf of the families and the Assaf Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel.
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Judge Varda Meroz of the Lod District Court, sitting as an administrative tribunal, chided the city for failing to register the children, calling its conduct “insensitive.”
“This is a weakened population,” she said. “The city didn’t open its doors as it should have. They didn’t choose to be migrants or refugees, she” Meroz urged the city to reach an accord with the petitioners. The city agreed to allow the children to be registered at its offices every day for two weeks.
Registration of children for kindergarten and first grade began in January, the petition explains, but claims that the city refused to allow dozens of asylum seeking families to enroll their children, citing bureaucratic difficulties. For instance the city wouldn’t allow the parents to present documents to the municipality as proof of residence, which would prove their children’s eligibility for educational services.
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In court on Wednesday the city claimed that the asylum seekers who wanted to register their children hadn’t proven affiliation with the city of Petah Tikva, or met the requirements of the Education Ministry. Reichman rebutted that the city had been advised where each such family lives.
The petition describes cases in which the city held up registering asylum seekers’ children time after time.
In March, following the queries of two asylum seeker families, the municipality said that they would open a special enrollment system for the children, claiming that it would allow them better make arrangements for the children who have no permanent status in Israel. The Ministry of Education got involved in the issue, and the head Tel Aviv education department, Haya Shitai, demanded that the municipality enroll the children immediately, “with no consideration to their background or status in Israel.”
Yet even though the families contacted the city again and again, and the Education Ministry – in April, May and June, the city wouldn’t let the parents register their children. A letter to Education Minister Rafi Peretz last month went unanswered. The ministry also failed to advise on steps it was taking toward registering the children.
The parties reached an agreement that if paperwork for a student is missing, the families can find the papers in the coming two weeks. If the city rejects a pupil, it will have to explain why. The city will also place the children according to their neighborhood of residence, which will prevent asylum seekers from being grouped in schools just for them.
The city said that in almost all cases of asylum seeker trying to register children, they lacked the necessary documentation, and most had no papers proving they had leased housing in Petah Tikva. Often there were issues of proving guardianship and shared consent by the parents, the city added. For these reasons, Yehezkel Reinhartz argued on behalf of the city, the petition should be summarily rejected.
The Education Ministry told the court that it instructs municipalities to register all children in the country irrespective of their status or identity. It also asked that the petition be rejected, saying that it does not abet the establishment of segregated establishments based or race or status: foreign students should be allowed to integrate into regular education programs, the ministry said.
An Eritrean mother of three said after the hearing that she just wants her children to be able to study like any other child. “We live quietly in Petah Tikva and I don’t understand why they don’t want us and why they fight us on the backs of our children,” she said, adding that she felt encouraged by the court outcome: “Israel is a nation of law and it makes me very glad.”
Reichman and Hassin said that "a message had been sent to authorities trying to hurt the asylum seekers: the right of children to education and the state's obligation to provide it is not dependent on the color of skin, race or origin."
In response to the court ruling on Wednesday, the Petah Tikva municipality said that "it will be possible to register applicants in accordance with the instructions of the Ministry of Education and presentation of required documents."