Social Affairs Ministry Refusing to Help Asylum Seekers in Peril

For asylum seekers, social problems that would usually be handled by authorities often go ignored

A preschool for asylum-seeker children in south Tel Aviv.
Daniel Tchetchik

For at least six months, the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry has been aware that M.’s husband has been beating her for years. The 31-year-old woman says this situation is making it difficult to deal with her 5-year-old twin girls and 18-month-old daughter, and she finds herself getting aggressive with them herself.

If this had been an Israeli family, social services would be required to intervene. M. would be sent to a battered women’s shelter, and her daughters would get protection from her mother’s outbursts. But M. and the three girls are Eritrean asylum seekers.

Employees of the local welfare authorities in Ashdod came to the house only after repeated requests from Assaf – The Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. The welfare workers said M. and the girls were in no immediate danger. When Assaf protested that the visit had been conducted without an interpreter, there was another visit with an interpreter, but the result was the same. The municipal welfare department made it clear to M. that there could be no treatment in a non-emergency situation.

M.’s experience is not unusual. Haaretz has found that the Social Affairs Ministry and municipal welfare departments are refusing to treat asylum seekers who need help, including domestic violence victims, homeless people, disabled people seeking occupational rehabilitation and others. The refusal of the Social Affairs Ministry seems to fly in the face of the ministry’s decision of February 2017, when it supposedly decided to change this policy, at least according to an internal document obtained by Haaretz.

Moreover, the Finance Ministry, at the end of 2017, transferred 10 million shekels (about $275,000) to the Social Affairs Ministry’s budget to assure that assisting asylum seekers would not come at the expense of welfare services for Israeli citizens. But to date there is no evidence that the Social Affairs Ministry has made any use of that money.

The ministry had made this ostensible change in policy after a scathing report by the state comptroller in 2014, which said its former policy was incongruent with the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and international conventions.

Haaretz has learned that because of the comptroller’s report, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has launched an inquiry into the legality of policies that refuse help to asylum seekers in all government ministries. The inquiry panel was formed in September 2017 and comprises representatives of the social affairs, housing, interior, health and justice ministries. As part of its work, the teams from each ministry are preparing a document with services its ministry could provide and how they would be funded.

Its establishment was delayed as the ministries bickered over which of them should head the panel. But since September the panel has held several meetings and is expected to make its recommendations shortly. Those conclusions are meant to be the basis for a government-wide policy on the issue, not policies for each individual ministry.

At the end of 2016, Assaf filed a petition against the Social Affairs Ministry’s policy and demanded that all social service departments be accessible to asylum seekers. The petition argued that it was the social affairs minister’s and welfare offices’ obligation to allow stateless persons who are lawfully in Israel, particularly asylum seekers, to receive welfare services if they need them. Last week, Justice Anat Baron allowed the state to delay its response to the petition until June, to give the inquiry panel a chance to finish its work. She noted that when the petition was filed in November 2016, the inter-ministerial panel had not yet been established, but now that it has been, it should be allowed to present its recommendations.

in January of this year, Dr. Avigdor Kaplan, the Social Affairs Ministry director-general, wrote to officials in other ministries, “The ministry will take upon itself to expand the treatment and solutions that are our responsibility to foreigners who are not deportable, subject to a budget increase, without undermining the services given to Israeli citizens.”

But in an internal document of the Ministry of Social Affairs from the beginning of 2017, the new ministry policy on treating migrant adults had already been formulated. “As for the population of foreigners who cannot be deported, it has already been established that at this point there is an obstacle to returning them to their countries of origin and therefore, during the interim stage of their stay in Israel, it is necessary to consider what welfare services can be provided to them and in what manner and extent.”

The ministry recommended treating people with severe disabilities, street dwellers, and women and children who are victims of domestic violence. For example, it was decided that battered women would be granted treatment in the community by employing language-appropriate social workers in centers that treat domestic violence and in out-of-home protection frameworks. The team recommended the opening of a shelter for women at risk who cannot be deported, manned by speakers of the relevant languages, as well as apartments to house the women on an interim basis once they leave the shelter, similar to how Israeli victims of domestic violence are treated.

Like M., T, an asylum seeker who lives in Tel Aviv with her two daughters, ages 1 and 3, has been beaten by her husband for several years. H., the husband, is interested in treatment to stop his violence towards his wife. The Assaf organization approached the Social Affairs Ministry with a request that he be seen by a local domestic violence center. In response, the director of the center said, “All the services provided by the center are in Hebrew only and in no other language. If there is a change in policy we will have to prepare accordingly. I don’t believe in therapy through an interpreter.”

According to Assaf executive director Michal Pinchuk, the cases of M. and T. highlight another phenomenon: In many instances where, if Israelis were involved, the welfare authorities would be obligated to intervene, when asylum seekers are involved, no remedy is given unless there is an immediate threat to life.

This is counterproductive, Pinchuk notes. “Cases at risk that are not addressed will quickly deteriorate into a threat to life and treating extreme cases is more complicated, difficult and expensive,” she says. What’s more, she added, “The elderly and homeless people who are ill will never be categorized by the Social Affairs Ministry as being endangered enough to require intervention.”

The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry said in response, “About eight months ago, an inter-ministerial team was set up to formulate recommendations for a basket of assistance to this most vulnerable population, in accordance with the State Comptroller’s Report. Without any connection to this committee, the ministry intervenes and assists any time an out-of-home rehabilitation solution is required to provide immediate protection, despite the many obstacles [in treating asylum seekers] such as lack of medical insurance, lack of rights and rental assistance and a lack of subsistence allowances, which makes it difficult for welfare frameworks alone to rehabilitate this population.”

The extra 10 million shekels, it said, “is already allocated and is intended to provide a range of out-of-home responses to female victims of domestic violence (shelters and interim apartments), homeless people, and people with disabilities. This is in addition to the remedies offered to victims of human trafficking and slavery recognized by the police. In addition, the Finance Ministry is increasing its budget to the Tel Aviv Municipality for services provided by the Assistance to Asylum Seekers program.”

The ministry acknowledged that the designated budget had been given to them at the start of 2018 but it refused to answer questions about when it would start using the funds to start treating asylum seekers.