Officials Debated Pushing Asylum Seekers to Leave Israel, but the Skies Are Closed

30,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan live in the country, most of whom have lost their jobs because of the virus crisis

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A man walks down the street protecting his face with a scarf, Neve Sha'anan, March 22, 2020
A man walks down the street protecting his face with a scarf, Neve Sha'anan, March 22, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Israeli government officials have developed a plan to encourage asylum seekers to leave the country amid the coronavirus crisis, allowing them to withdraw only up to 2,700 shekels ($745) a month from funds the state is holding back as a deposit that they would normally receive when they leave the country.

At first, Israel sought to promote “voluntary repatriation” of the asylum seekers, but discovered that African countries have closed their borders.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

The funds, paid out of their wages in Israel, were to be released only after the asylum seekers left the country, but most have lost their jobs in the coronavirus crisis.

Representatives of government ministries who attended a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office Monday said that while encouraging asylum seekers to leave was “preferable” to having to take care of them in the event they became ill with COVID-19, that option was “not possible since all the countries have completely shut their doors. Eritrea has also completely closed entry to the country.”

“We must consider ... when the use of the deposit funds could be allowed and what sum would balance the need to provide for basic needs and the possibility of using this tool for a significant period of time, as much as needed, without undermining the purpose of the Deposit Law,” the minutes of the meeting stated.

Likud MK May Golan, who supports the expulsion of asylum seekers and attended the meeting as the representative of residents of south Tel Aviv, said asylum seekers should be allowed to access their funds and return to their country or a third country. She added that their basic needs could be supplied through food vouchers or even bank loans.

“The crisis and the closure of most workplaces should be used to encourage voluntary departure at this time, also by means of additional benefits,” Golan said. Participants in the meeting included representatives of the Justice Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the National Security Council.

Ministry representatives said the government had examined the possibility of allowing the asylum seekers to borrow against the deposit so the state would retain control of the money, but this option was determined “not legally implementable.” It was also noted that Justice Minister Amir Ohana opposes any amendment to the Deposit Law. “In any case, there is no intention to cancel the Deposit Law, but rather to permit limited withdrawal only of the worker’s deposits. No withdrawal of the employer’s deposits — about 50 percent of the total — will be allowed,” the summary said.

The World Health Organization, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency issued a statement Wednesday calling on nations to protect the rights and health of refugees and migrants in light of the coronavirus crisis. “In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, we are all vulnerable. The virus has shown that it does not discriminate - but many refugees, those forcibly displaced, the stateless and migrants are at heightened risk."

The statement continued, "This disease can be controlled only if there is an inclusive approach which protects every individual’s rights to life and health. Migrants and refugees are disproportionately vulnerable to exclusion, stigma and discrimination, particularly when undocumented. To avert a catastrophe, governments must do all they can to protect the rights and the health of everyone. Protecting the rights and the health of all people will in fact help control the spread of the virus.”

Asked what their position is on the release of the asylum seekers’ deposit funds, the UNHCR in Israel said: “During this serious crisis, the main question is how to help the asylum seekers and refugees in Israel, not whether to help them, since the coronavirus does not discriminate between people on the basis of their status. Anyone who has savings in the deposit funds ought to have access to money so he can take care of himself and his family in this difficult time. After the huge wave of layoffs and in the absence of an alternative economic safety net, the asylum seekers have no sources of livelihood,” said Sharon Harel of UNHCR. “This could hurt not just the refugees but also Israeli society’s efforts to stem the disease. Only an approach that doesn’t leave anyone behind, including the weakest people at society’s margins, can help to stem the disease. This is the time to leave political questions aside and to focus on solidarity, concern for human life and mutual responsibility.”

There are 30,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel, most of whom have lost their jobs because of the virus crisis. Unlike Israeli citizens, they are not eligible for unemployment or other benefits and have no national health insurance, only private health insurance that is dependent on their being employed. Aid organizations report that in the past week there was a sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers requesting food donations.

The aid organizations and the Israel Restaurants Association have asked Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Interior Minister Arye Dery to release the deposit funds that the state took from the asylum seekers’ wages over the years to try to encourage them to leave Israel. According to the law, the money held in the deposit fund — 20 percent of their monthly wages, along with severance pay and other social rights amounting to 16 percent of their wages paid by employers — will only be paid out when the person leaves the country.

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