Israel Blocks Hundreds of Asylum Seekers From Accessing Their Bank Accounts

Asylum seekers are being given new visa numbers unannounced, causing banks to refuse them access to their account. As a result, many can't pay rent or withdraw money

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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An African asylum seeker walks past an ATM in south Tel Aviv.
An African asylum seeker walks past an ATM in south Tel Aviv.Credit: Meged Gozani
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Many asylum seekers have lost access to their bank accounts due to changes made to their visa numbers by the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority. Since December, reports have begun surfacing of asylum seekers who have been given new visa numbers without the document that they receive containing any reference to the previous number. Banks are now refusing to allow asylum seekers with new numbers to access their accounts if their identity cannot be confirmed.

Dozens of complaints in this regard have been filed with the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, which said hundreds of asylum seekers have been affected. Other aid organizations have received similar complaints.

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B., an asylum seeker from Eritrea who lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana, has been unable to pay his rent this month as a result. The salary he earns from his job at a supermarket, which is deposited directly into his account, is enough to pay his rent, but the bank won’t permit him to make withdrawals because of the change in his visa number. The Population and Immigration Authority has not informed the asylum seekers of the change in their visa numbers, Haaretz has learned.

The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said it has also received a large number of complaints on the matter, beginning in December, from asylum seekers who had been released from the Holot migrant detention center in the south. After Holot was shut down, asylum seekers came to the Population and Immigration Authority offices to renew their visas and were given documents with a different number from what that they had had for years.

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“For most asylum seekers, their visa and their release subject to restrictions is their only means of identification, if they have no passport or other documents. The Population and Immigration Authority can easily add the old identity number on lines meant for remarks, and we are calling on the authority to do so immediately,” the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said.

It is unclear why the Population Authority is changing the identity numbers of some asylum seekers but not others when they renew their visas — or what purpose the change serves. For its part, the Population Authority responded: “The issue has been brought to the attention of the authority and it is an issue involving a limited number of cases. As far as the authority is concerned, there is no doubt this is the same person, however we are working to resolve the matter.” The Bank of Israel, Israel’s central bank, which oversees the banking sector, did not respond for this report.

“They changed my visa number and I didn’t notice that the number on the new visa was different. Now I can’t deposit or withdraw money from my account,” B. said. “I went back to the Population Authority and told them I have a problem with the bank because of the change in the visa number, but they told me that they can’t do anything about it. Now I need to borrow money from my friends. My apartment mates are paying my rent because of this. It’s very difficult,” he added.

Hagos, another Eritrean asylum seeker, who came to Israel in 2011, has renewed his visa every few months. In March, when he went to the Population and Immigration Authority’s offices in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, he received a visa with a different number. He said he has encountered the same problem as a result.

“I’ve already been in Israel for six years. I was in Saharonim [prison] and Holot [detention center]. When I got out of Holot, I received a new visa with a new number. I live with friends in Tel Aviv, although my visa says that’s forbidden, because there’s no other place for me to go. At the bank, they didn’t believe that this was my account and said the number was not the same. I told them over and over that this is the account, but they wouldn’t allow me to withdraw money.I don’t have money now for anything, I don’t know how I’m going to pay the rent or buy food. I survive day to day,” he recounted.

Since December, Yonit Naftali Kav El, the founder and head of a group of volunteers, has been accompanying asylum seekers every day in the long lines at the Population Authority offices in Bnei Brak. Her group is finding an ever-growing number of changes in the visas that are issued.

“Since we’ve accompanied the line, every week or two we see a new edict, something small or big that disrupts their lives and makes them more difficult. The government’s policy is to encourage [the asylum seekers] to leave the country, and the most efficient way to do this is not to let asylum seekers live here on the most basic level.” Kav El alleged.

A new law requiring asylum seekers to deposit 20 percent of their salaries into a special fund that is recoverable only when they leave the country is one example of this, and it also dissuades employers from hiring them, she said. “Another way is through the very demand that they renew their visas every month or two. Every asylum seeker in Israel has to come to Bnei Brak, because except for Eilat, this is the only office that deals with them. [They have] to stand in line for hours, sometimes from the night before, and of course lose a day of work,” she said. “Now there’s this story of the visa number,” she added. “Here’s another kind of burden, another means of making their lives more difficult, with the thought that this will push them out of here.”

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