A controversial law requiring asylum seekers working in Israel to deposit 20 percent of their salaries into a closed account they can only access when they leave the country isn’t being honored by either employers or the asylum seekers, the Population and Immigration Authority conceded on Monday.
The law, which went into effect a year ago on Tuesday, not only requires that a fifth of asylum seekers’ salaries be set aside in the account but also mandates that employers, mainly restaurants and hotels, allocate another 16 percent into the fund.
But at a session of the Knesset Interior Committee on Monday, representatives of the authority said only 11,000 of the 38,000 asylum seekers resident in Israel had opened an account at all. And in many cases, employers deposited only some of the required money in the accounts that were opened.
“Almost a year has gone by since the deposit law, but the level of enforcement is as if the law went into effect yesterday,” said MK Yoav Kish (Likud), who chairs the Knesset committee. “After the failure to expel infiltrators, this law is the only legal tool we have today to encourage infiltrators to leave voluntarily.”
The figures confirmed a report in TheMarker last week that many employers appear to be making the 20 percent deduction from salaries and pocketing it, thereby undermining the goal of the program, which was to encourage the refugees to leave.
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Yossi Edelstein, who is the head of enforcement at the authority, told lawmakers on Monday that it was quite possible that the deduction could appear on a refugee’s pay slip even if the money was not actually deposited.
“We intend to issue a statement that we are going to enforce the deposit law aggressively,” Edelstein promised. “Up to now, enforcement was minimal because the process of setting up the system was under way. But today there’s an online form for the deposits. We’ve collected pay slips and work hours and right now, 70 businesses are being investigated.”
Kish was referring to Israel’s admission last week that its plan to relocate African asylum seekers had fallen through and that there was currently no possibility of forcibly deporting them. A statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would therefore reopen the detention facilities it established for them in the south.
The deposit law was controversial even as it went into effect on May 1 last year. Critics condemned it as a crude effort to force refugees to leave the country by effectively cutting their wages even though most of them are getting little more than minimum wage to begin with.
To ensure that an asylum seeker is really leaving, the only place authorized by the government to make the payout is the Mizrahi Tefahot Bank branch at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Edelstein admitted there was no internet site where asylum seekers and employers can monitor accounts and track payments made into them.
“An asylum seeker has no access to his account, but we have it. Once every two months, he can ask us to see it,” he said. Nevertheless, he insisted that any refugee who began having money deposited in his or her account from last June would get the money on leaving the country.
As for making the information available directly and in real time, the authority said “we are now working on launching an internet site for migrants to check the status of their accounts. In addition, the site will enable employers to see whether a worker is legal and whether his permit is valid.”