Israel to Compel Refugees to Return Money Used During Coronavirus Crisis

Under right-wing pressure, executive alters law allowing destitute asylum seekers to withdraw some of the money the gov't forces them to save as incentive to leave Israel

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A man wearing a protective mask in front of a shuttered store in a normally busy street of South Tel Aviv, March 31, 2020.
A man wearing a protective mask in front of a shuttered store in a normally busy street of South Tel Aviv, March 31, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

The Prime Minister’s Office aims to force asylum seekers who withdraw money from their deposit due to the pandemic to repay the money they withdrew starting in January 2021, at the demand of right-wing politicians and pro-deportation activists.

The PMO changed the previous draft bill, which did not demand the money’s return, a source familiar with the plan said.

Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

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The idea behind the revision was “not to harm the asylum seekers’ motivation to leave Israel,” the source said. “The logic is that if there isn’t much money left in the fund, we cannot encourage them to leave.”

The bill is meant to enable asylum seekers to withdraw up to 2,700 shekels ($752) a month from the sum deducted from their pay and held by the authorities, as over half of them are believed to have lost their jobs since the pandemic’s outbreak.

Asylum seekers in Israel have no financial safety net. More than a third of their monthly paycheck is deducted each month for their “deposit fund,” severance pay and other benefits. They can only get this money back if they leave the country.

The new plan is expected to affect about 17,000 out of some 31,000 asylum seekers and refugees. The remaining 14,000 have no deposit, or the sums in it are especially small, sources told Haaretz.

The draft proposal was released about two weeks ago and has not been submitted for the cabinet’s approval. Four days after its release, it was closed to public comments and sources said senior government officials were afraid of criticism because of the assistance it affords asylum seekers. Some sources named the acting director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Ronen Peretz, as one of the officials holding up the plan.

Population and Immigration Authority director general Shlomo Mor Yosef said on Thursday: “There’s one issue the ministries haven’t agreed on yet. I very much hope the issue will be resolved today and we’ll be able to advance it. From the day the restaurants closed down it was clear we’d have to find a solution.”

He spoke at a meeting of the Knesset committee dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

A family walks in front of a shuttered store during the coronavirus lockdown, South Tel Aviv, April 14, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Right-wing lawmaker and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is known for being close to pro-deportation activists, suggested at the meeting not to enable asylum seekers to draw on their deposits, but to oblige them to work in agriculture or nursing to make money. Mor Yosef said,“We’re not at the stage of opening or not opening [deposits for withdrawal], but at deciding on what conditions.”

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai said at the meeting, “I’m ashamed of this kind of talk, and that at a time of emergency they’re dealing with bureaucracy instead of finding a solution. They’re telling a community whose livelihood was abruptly severed, which doesn’t have any health insurance or the National Insurance Institute’s protection, to make do with 2,700 shekels, a sum that is impossible to live on.”

Committee chairman Ofer Shelah, from the Kahol Lavan breakaway party Yesh Atid-Telem, summed up the debate: “Asylum seekers are the only people in Israel who have no financial safety net, and the 2,700 shekels won’t change their decision whether to leave Israel or not. The main thing, in my eyes, is the fact that the state made this decision and as usual isn’t carrying it out. ... A humanitarian matter of the utmost importance is held up because of bureaucracy and political considerations.”

A source said that making it more difficult for asylum seekers to withdraw some of their deposit raises questions about the deposit’s legality, an issue currently being debated in the High Court of Justice.

Police hand out fliers about the coronavirus to migrant workers and asylum seekers in Tel Aviv's Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, March 22, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Even in the hardest time – when this community is unemployed and has no source of income, there are some people who want to make it even more difficult for them, while the humanitarian option is the exact opposite,” the source said.

Another source said that “toughening the criteria to withdraw the deposit funds isn’t to help the asylum seekers but to pander to the pro-deportation activists and politicians. This is a petty policy, which will achieve nothing.”

Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline for the Protection of Workers’ Rights said, “Not only is the asylum seekers’ money being robbed, but now the government will lend it back to them with interest.”



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