86 Percent of Tel Aviv Asylum Seekers Lack Food Security, First Official Survey Finds

Coronavirus forces asylum seekers into 'genuine hunger,' survey concludes, as expert describes a 'severe humanitarian crisis' in south Tel Aviv

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An African migrant sits at a restaurant in Tel Aviv.
An African migrant sits at a restaurant in Tel Aviv.Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

Fully 86 percent of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv say they suffer from food insecurity, including 54 percent who show signs of actual hunger, according to the first survey ever conducted on this issue.

The survey, conducted by Dr. Moran Blaychfeld Magnazi, was commissioned by the Health Ministry and the Tel Aviv municipality.

Blaychfeld Magnazi’s conclusion was that unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic had driven many asylum seekers into “genuine hunger” matches the descriptions of both the asylum seekers themselves and aid organizations. One expert on the subject said there was a “severe humanitarian crisis” in south Tel Aviv, where most asylum seekers live.

The survey’s findings were recently shown to senior officials from the health, education, justice and social affairs ministries as well as the Tel Aviv municipality. But the Health Ministry apparently prefers to downplay them. “In this political climate, it’s hard to talk about the refugees’ situation or helping them,” one government official explained.

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The Justice Ministry said it was “aware of and troubled by” the asylum seekers’ situation and is “making every effort to help them.” The Health Ministry said a professional committee was discussing possible solutions, and that the government was committed to helping, “within the existing budgetary limitations.” The Tel Aviv municipality said it had launched an emergency fund and solicited donations to finance food vouchers, food packages and more, and would continue to try “to find solutions that could ease the foreign community’s situation.”

Jamila, a 35-year-old mother of five, has been in Israel since 2007. “Before the coronavirus, the situation was good,” she said. “We’d buy chicken, meat, vegetables at the supermarket,” and even treats like chocolate for the children. But she and her husband were both fired when the pandemic erupted.

Now, “There’s almost no money to buy food. We get donations. In the morning, the kids eat cold cereal and we drink tea; then we wait until 5 P.M. There’s one meal, usually rice or pasta. I can’t remember when we last ate meat. We also don’t eat a lot of eggs. If we get vegetables, we have to eat them quickly, before they spoil.”

Every week or two, Jamila visits an aid center opened a few months ago by activists from the Sudanese community in the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood. It is funded by donations from individuals and organizations. A similar aid center was opened for the Eritrean community, which is also experiencing severe distress.

“We’ve been called to help single mothers who haven’t eaten for two days,” said Barha Taama. “Israelis don’t understand this – that we don’t have a mother and father.”

Jamila said that “it’s hard to explain to the children why there’s no food.” With schools finally reopening, other families are worried about not being able to give their children sandwiches for lunch at school.

“Every evening, I think about how to divvy up the food until the next food package comes,” one mother said.

Some 40,000 people with no legal status in Israel live in Tel Aviv. Of these, around 6,500 are minors.

The survey, which is being reported for the first time here, was conducted in November and December 2020 among 500 asylum seekers and work migrants in south Tel Aviv. On average, the respondents had lived in Israel for 10 years.

A person scavenges for food in Tel Aviv, last year.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The survey used a standard questionnaire for research on food security, translated into English, Arabic and Tigrinya. It was distributed to respondents by Mesila, the municipal agency that deals with migrants and refugees.

The survey asked questions like how many times in the last six months respondents “ran out of money to buy food,” how often they “couldn’t eat balanced meals,” how often they skimped on or skipped meals and whether they had experienced hunger. Based on their answers, respondents were divided into three categories – those who had food security (14 percent), those who suffered from moderate food insecurity (32 percent) and those who suffered from severe food insecurity (54 percent).

The standard definition of food security is being able to buy food on a regular basis. Severe food insecurity means that people sometimes go hungry.

The survey’s harsh findings surprised some government officials who saw them. “In any other population group, findings like these would spark an emergency campaign by government agencies,” one said.

Prof. Aron Troen of Hebrew University’s school of nutritional sciences said the data was “frightening” and required a “political and moral response.” He added that the term “food insecurity” is a euphemism for “people who can’t obtain food. Even if they aren’t hungry, since their stomachs are full of empty starches, they aren’t healthy and suffer from malnutrition.”

When Blaychfeld Magnazi presented the survey’s findings at a University of Haifa seminar a few weeks ago, she titled her talk “Hunger among migrant workers and asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv.” She said she had debated over that title, but decided it was warranted because “a very high percentage suffer from genuine hunger.”

The number of people seeking help from Mesila has risen by hundreds of percent, she noted, as have reports of emotional problems, domestic violence, children running wild and drug and alcohol addiction. Since the pandemic began, Mesila has distributed over 10,000 food vouchers and 3,750 food packages, but that is far from meeting the needs, she added.

In addition to the survey, Blaychfeld Magnazi conducted four focus groups with around 30 community activists to get more details on the community’s problems and what aid it has received. From this, she learned that food vouchers were sometimes used to pay rent, that people sometimes “got cooked food that we don’t like and threw it out,” and that it was hard to face children “who have gotten used to expensive Israeli food.”

“Before the coronavirus, people with no legal status could help each other more,” one aid organization employee said. “But now, with 80 percent of them unemployed, they’re collapsing. Sometimes we have to tell people we’re out of food packages and send them home hungry. It’s heartbreaking.”

Another person familiar with the situation said that “all the government agencies know what’s happening here, but not all of them are appalled. Once again, they’ve decided not to decide.”

Three years ago, for instance, the Education Ministry decided not to include two Tel Aviv schools that serve asylum seekers’ children in the long school day program, which provides a hot meal. The official in charge, Haim Halperin, rejected the idea again several times in subsequent years, but earlier this week, he insisted that he had never been approached on the matter. He then declined to respond to Haaretz’s questions.

At a meeting on food insecurity convened by the Health Ministry last summer, a Justice Ministry official mentioned the “political challenge of finding money” for asylum seekers, given that many rightist parties and rightist activists favor deporting them. This has led to government aid being given under the radar.

For instance, sources involved in the issue said, several million shekels from funds controlled by the ministry’s Administrator General’s Office were earmarked for this purpose. Among other things, this money helped pay for Mesila’s food vouchers (together with matching funds from the Tel Aviv Foundation).

Nevertheless, much of the work is still being done by nongovernmental organizations.

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