U.S. State Department Raps Israel Over Treatment of African Asylum Seekers

Annual report called on Israel to repeal 'Deposit Law' and provide access to healthcare services

Asylum seekers in Petah Tikva, February 2019.
Ilan Assayag

In its annual report on human trafficking, the U.S. State Department urged Israel on Thursday to repeal a “deposit law” that requires employers to deduct a fifth of African migrants’ salaries.

The report says the law “significantly increases vulnerabilities to trafficking for the irregular African migrant population.”

It says in a section about Israel that “the government did not systematically screen for trafficking among the irregular African migrant population and as a result authorities may have penalized unidentified and some identified victims for immigration violations. For example, the government continued to implement the “Deposit Law” (article 4 of the Prevention of Infiltration Law), which required employers to deposit a certain percentage of irregular migrants’ wages – including those of identified trafficking victims – into a fund that migrants could not access until they departed from the country; the government could also add penalties to the fund for each day a migrant remained in the country without a visa.

The report adds that “NGOs reported that some employers withheld but never deposited wages into the fund. Furthermore, NGOs reported this law pushed migrants – particularly Eritrean women – into the black market, including prostitution, which exacerbated their vulnerability to trafficking,” the U.S. report says.

Kav La’Oved welcomed the recommendation, saying: “We have witnessed the law’s significance since its enforcement: The law robs asylum seekers of their minimum wages, leading them to poverty and forcing some to resort to giving up food, medicine, a roof over their heads, and exposes them to prostitution.

“The law has been discussed in the Supreme Court which has yet to decide its future. Lawmakers should rescind it as soon as possible to rectify a terrible injustice to asylum seekers who arrived here to save their lives, after suffering persecution in their native lands. Today, on International Refugee Day, is a good day to remind the State of Israel it is a signatory to the internal refugee charter which guarantees asylum seekers the rights of all workers and that they not be forced to endure hunger and deportation.”

The Deposit Law went into effect in May 2017, forcing employers to deduct from asylum seekers’ wages and depositing the sums in a special account held aside until the asylum seeker leaves the country. Data submitted to the High Court of Justice shows that half of asylum seekers and refugees earn less than the minimum wage.

Data gathered by the ASSAF association, which assists asylum seekers and refugees, shows more than 1,300 of those who have asked for aid since the law took effect have experienced a dramatic deterioration in their situations.

In 2017 there was a 35 percent rise in asylum seekers reporting economic difficulties and a 33 percent increase in requests for food packages. Families said children were going hungry to school and kindergarten and that they had stopped paying for health insurance for their children, and that there has been a rise in worker exploitation. Women have complained of having to work in prostitution. Data shows an 86 percent increase in reports of fears of going homeless. As a result overcrowding among asylum seekers has risen and many families live in one room, to accommodate sub-letters.

The report urges Israel to “proactively screen irregular African migrants to ensure trafficking victims among this population are not penalized for unlawful acts traffickers compel them to commit, such as immigration violations.”

It calls on Israel to provide access to national healthcare for victims of trafficking, and amend a 2006 anti-trafficking law “to include a definition of human trafficking consistent with international law.”

Israel is also urged to prosecute more human trafficking crimes and to “increase the number and geographic dispersion of government officials authorized to officially recognize identified trafficking victims, including victims referred by NGOs, to allow for more efficient access to protection services.”