Almaz (not her real name) is a single mother of three who has been in Israel for a decade. She has long accustomed herself to the Deposit Law that garnished 20 percent of her salary, the lack of official status, health insurance and welfare services, and the racism at every turn. She had managed to support herself and her daughters through hours of cleaning work. But then the coronavirus crisis erupted and by April she was left without any income.
She managed to survive May, June and July because the High Court of Justice overturned the Deposit Law and she had 5,000 shekels released to her. She also got some assistance from Assaf, the aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. But by August there was no more help to be had. She was evicted from her apartment and is now living with her daughters in a room in a friend’s apartment. She has yet to find work.
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Asylum seekers like Almaz, who have been living at the margins of society for more than a decade, were dealt a crushing blow by the emergency situation caused by the pandemic. New data collected by organizations helping asylum seekers indicate that their situation is deteriorating and is on the verge of becoming a humanitarian crisis.
According to research and surveys conducted by these groups, some 80 percent of the asylum seeker population is now unemployed. Assaf has registered a 97 percent increase in requests for aid since March, compared to the same period last year. Most are requests for food, particularly baby food, as well as diapers and rent assistance. Many asylum seekers were employed by restaurants and hotels, which have been particularly hard-hit by the crisis, and even those who were able to return to work after the first lockdown were mostly dismissed again during the second. They are not eligible to collect unemployment.
“Under these circumstances we fear a humanitarian crisis and a rise in the number of homeless, families suffering from food insecurity, women forced into prostitution and more,” the organizations wrote, in a letter they are sending Monday morning to all the lawmakers and ministers. “Many of them cannot support their families and are left with no institutional support networks or family to rely on.”
An internet survey conducted by the Emergency Committee of the Eritrean Community (an organization of leaders of the asylum-seeker community) among 930 people found that 70.8 percent cannot pay their rent, while 7.2 percent have someone helping them pay it. Forty-eight percent said they hadn’t worked since March, and 30 percent had lost their jobs twice. Nearly 30 percent say they need emotional support.
In a letter to President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various ministers, the community leaders wrote that while with community effort and help from Israeli citizens and organizations they managed to get through the first lockdown, “The economic and psychological situation of our community during the second lockdown is very frightening. Our community is totally helpless and uncertain. We are asking you to look at us and help us get out of this powerful crisis before there is loss of life.”
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Loss of income is only the first part of the problem, since once they lose their jobs, asylum seekers also lose the only way they can get medical treatment in the community. Asylum seekers are not eligible for national health insurance, but anyone employing an asylum seeker had to arrange private health insurance for him or her, which enabled them to be treated in local clinics. When the jobs disappeared, so did the insurance and thus the ability of the worker to visit the health maintenance organizations.
As a result, says Physicians for Human Rights, asylum seekers must now take their health issues to hospital emergency rooms, a problem compounded by the coronavirus crisis. Firstly, a lack of information means that many asylum seekers are probably visiting the emergency rooms in contravention of Health Ministry guidelines and secondly, those asylum seekers suffering from serious or chronic illnesses, like cancer or heart disease, are having difficulty getting proper treatment for their conditions and are thus at serious risk.
Moreover, the lack of health coverage makes it difficult from them to get coronavirus tests. Although there are testing stations for them in the central region, those who live in the north or south can’t get tested and are thus exposing themselves and their surroundings to unnecessary risk.
Nor are the asylum seekers protected from violence. According to Assaf, there has been a 400 percent increase in the number of family violence complaints among asylum seekers compared to the same period last year. One can assume that the rate is considerably higher, since many women never approach aid organizations for help. A female asylum seeker who isn’t deemed to be at immediate risk to her life won’t get any help from the welfare authorities.
And if Zoom classes are thought to be intolerable by well-off Jewish families in the center of the country, for Eritrean and Sudanese children they are simply impossible. Many live in crowded apartments with no place for them to study, and no computers or online connections that would allow for distance learning. “Thousands of children of asylum seekers are being more or less excluded from studies,” the aid organizations write.
The aid groups have suggested to the government a list of solutions to prevent humanitarian collapse: The immediate distribution of food, financial aid, and help with rent; provision of full social services, even if temporarily, until the crisis ends; provision of health insurance to asylum seekers and the setting up of coronavirus testing centers for those without resident status or health insurance all over the country. Other suggestions include making help-lines available to asylum seekers in their languages and to immediately identify those children without computers or internet access so they can participate in distance learning.
“During times of crisis there’s concern of an increase in the manifestations of racism and discrimination against weak and excluded populations,” officials of the aid organizations wrote. Those involved in the research were the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Worker’s Hotline, African Refugee Development Center, Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Assaf and Physicians for Human Rights.