Israeli Towns to Provide Welfare Funds for Asylum Seekers – Two Years Late

The neglect in allotting earmarked funds only came to light after a High Court petition

Lee Yaron
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Asylum seekers at the offices of the Assaf nonprofit group in Tel Aviv, December 2019.
Asylum seekers at the offices of the Assaf nonprofit group in Tel Aviv, December 2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lee Yaron

Israel's Finance Ministry earmarked funding for social services to asylum seekers more than two years ago, but the Labor Ministry never told the municipalities about it, according to documents filed this week with the High Court of Justice.

As a result of the filing, the Labor Ministry has issued a circular telling local social welfare departments to provide services to asylum seekers who meet certain criteria. The directive cannot be implemented, however, until an insurance issue is ironed out with the Health Ministry.

Currently, non-homeless asylum seekers receive government social welfare services only in life-threatening situations, even if they have disabilities. This is the case even though Israeli social-services law makes no distinction between legal residents and others.

According to the court filing by the Federation of Local Authorities, the Labor Ministry – whose full name is the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry – excluded local welfare departments from deliberations on crafting policy on the issue. It allegedly ignored previous criticism by the federation on the subject.

But the Labor Ministry said that the head of the Tel Aviv municipality’s Mesila migrant worker and refugee center was a member of the ministry’s policy team and made clear the needs – which were conveyed to the interministerial committee that developed the policy recommendations.

“The Labor and Welfare Ministry is in constant contact with the Federation of Local Authorities regarding the provision of social welfare services to every population group, including the population of foreigners who are not subject to deportation,” the ministry said.

With the ministry’s circular, for the first time local authorities have been informed of their obligation to provide services to certain categories of asylum seekers. The document is based on recommendations a year ago by the interministerial committee.

The ministry said implementation has been hampered because Israel remains with a caretaker government after this year's two stalemated general elections. As a result, the ministry lacks wide-ranging power to make policy changes.

The High Court case was filed in 2016 by the Assaf nonprofit group that provides assistance to refugees and asylum seekers, and by the refugee rights clinic at Tel Aviv University’s law school. It alleges that the withholding of social welfare services was improperly imposed via an administrative order, constituting discrimination and violating international law.

At a hearing Monday, Assaf asked the High Court to rule that the use of the administrative order breached Israeli law.

The justices hearing the case – Court President Esther Hayut, Daphne Barak-Erez and David Mintz – suggested that Assaf withdraw its petition because of the ministry's circular and the limitations suffered by the caretaker government. The court said Assaf could refile later to address the populations not covered by the circular, and Assaf agreed.

The circular is set to regulate local social welfare services for asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. It will stipulate how the millions of shekels in annual funding will be allotted to three groups of asylum seekers – female victims of domestic violence, the disabled and the homeless. The services include housing, translation services, transportation to medical appointments and pocket money.

The directives do not apply to other asylum seekers in need, including those who were tortured in Sinai in Egypt on the way to Israel, families living in poverty and women who have resorted to prostitution. Assaf plans to file another High Court petition requesting that these groups also be covered.

The recommendations by the interministerial committee have never been released, but Haaretz obtained a copy of them a year ago. The panel recommended that local social welfare authorities provide services to five groups of asylum seekers – female domestic-violence victims, the homeless, children at risk, the disabled and segments of the community vulnerable for other reasons.

Local social welfare authorities say they have tried to obtain information from the Labor Ministry on the number of asylum seekers who need assistance, the estimated cost of the services, whether the funding for local authorities will be one-time or over a number of years, and whether the funds might also go to migrant workers with work visas.

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