Being the Child of Asylum Seekers in Israel 'Hurts Every Day'

Educated at separate schools, sidelined by society and dreaming of an ID card – thousands of children, many of them born in Israel, lack legal residency status and decent quality of life

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Venus. The insult still burns inside her.
Venus. The insult still burns inside her.Credit: Amir Levy
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

“In sixth grade we went, a few of us friends, to a place with special trampolines in Petah Tikva, and we needed to sign up with our parents' ID card numbers. All the children called their parents to ask for them except me. My mom didn’t have an ID card. We tried to convince the people at the entrance to let me in anyway, but they wouldn’t agree. Even when I said I would show them my mother’s visa, it didn’t help. All of us went back home without going in to play.”

Today, Venus, now 19, is doing a post-high school year of voluntary communal service in Netanya, but the insult from that day still burns inside her. Her mother, a single parent, is an asylum seeker from South Sudan. The lack of legal residency status in Israel is a constant presence in her life.

I live in uncertainty. It hurts every day

Venus, 19

“I live in uncertainty. It hurts every day,” she says. “I run into this lack of residency situation in a lot of day-to-day places. This year, for example, I wanted to go with my friends from the one-year program [of community service] to Poland, but I didn’t get an exit permit, not even when I appealed to the court. It may not hurt anymore like the first time, because it’s already become a habit, but it’s even sadder that you get used to it. It’s a feeling that there’s no hope.”

Today, 8,252 minors whose parents are asylum seekers from Eritrea or Sudan live in Israel. These minors have no legal status and are not allowed to be “removed” – in other words, they are wards of the state who are subject to temporary protection from deportation. Most are under 12.

Credit: Photography: Tali Mayer / Art: Masha Zur Gluzman

The great majority of this whole group, 6,659 of them, were born in Israel. Yet they are living here with no legal residency status and without a unique, official ID number. At the end of 2021, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality asked for a single, identifying number to be assigned to every such person enrolled in school. In response to a question from MK Ibtisam Mara’ana (Labor) last month, the Population and Immigration Authority said this process was still being worked on.

A former senior Interior Ministry official told Haaretz in the past that these young people, who do not follow the same paths as their Israeli peers and cannot even obtain a driver’s license, must receive the government's full attention because for now they have no foreseeable future in the country and they are liable to descend into crime and life on society's margins. In practice, however, the government is simply not there.

'I was like everyone else. But I was a naive kid, I didn’t understand the situation. I didn’t ever think about my status.'

Hyiab, 18 and a half, arrived in Israel on foot via the Sinai Peninsula when she was 3 years old, with her mother, an asylum seeker from Eritrea. She recalls that even though she was the only young woman of color at her school in Jerusalem's upscale Rehavia neighborhood, she was not treated differently from her friends. Nonetheless, she is constantly reminded of her unresolved status.

For example, during the bagrut (matriculation) exams in high school, “I needed to explain every time to the examiner that I study here, even though I don’t have an ID number.” Hyiab is not allowed to travel out of the country and is banned from entering many entertainment venues and clubs with her friends because she doesn’t have an ID. The only proof she has that she is over 18 is a piece of paper that serves as her visa.

Children play at a kindergarten playground in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“Now that we graduated from 12th grade," she says, "most of my friends are being drafted and I very much wanted to be, too. But when I asked about it, they told me no because I don’t have residency status.”

Here, but not here

A total of 3,774 children and teenagers without legal residency live at present in Tel Aviv, mostly in three neighborhoods in the southern part of the city. Eilat has the second-highest number of them, 605, followed by Netanya, 402, and then Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, each of which have just under 400.

The locale in which they live has a major influence on the social integration of these individuals, according to a forthcoming study in the journal Political Geography. From 2017 to 2021, Prof. Julia Resnik, of the School of Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Prof. Adriana Kemp and Tehila Sharabi, of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, conducted 101 in-depth interviews, studying municipal policies and reports of NGOs to examine the way Israel’s two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, handle migrant children and teenagers with a status they call “liminal legality.”

The authors of the study interviewed 64 asylum-seeking children and parents, along with welfare workers, educators, youth movement and after-school program personnel, psychologists and government officials. The researchers told Haaretz that the main issue underlying their study was the question of how it felt to grow up with a temporary and ambiguous status, to be in an ongoing state of uncertainty.

Asylum seekers protest against the Tel Aviv municipality in May (subjects are not related to the article).Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“These children are here in a physical or social way, but they are invisible as far as their status is concerned – in other words, they are not completely here,” Prof. Resnik explained. “This situation has many ramifications, and we tried to understand whether they are aware of it, whether they have a sort of legal consciousness.”

Among others, the researchers spoke with high-school graduates, who presented a broader perspective. “The younger children are not always aware of being without status,” she continued. “Inside the education system they feel they belong, but suddenly at age 18 they’re not like everyone else.”

One interviewee, a graduate of the Bialik Rogozin school in Tel Aviv – whose student body hails from dozens of countries – described finishing high school as a real crisis. “As long as I was in school," he said, "I was responsible, I volunteered in the community, attended the Gadna [premilitary program]. I was like everyone else. But I was a naive kid, I didn’t understand the situation. I didn’t ever think about my status. After I graduated and needed to begin working in a normal job, they asked me to go to the Interior Ministry to renew my visa. Suddenly, for an entire year, I needed to make the rounds. After school I just had a feeling of humiliation, every place I went.”

The researchers also found differences in responses between the children of working migrants who received legal status and the children of asylum seekers who lacked residency, on the question of vagrancy – a situation that has occupied welfare authorities in recent years – especially in Tel Aviv. “When there is no policy on the national level that determines ‘this is how we will deal with it,’ the role of local players becomes very central in the attempt to understand how to treat these children,” Prof. Kemp noted.

'We say no'

According to the Political Geography study, in Tel Aviv – where the investment in children and teenagers without status is relatively high, in terms of personnel and budgets – a segregated system has been created in which they study separately. Jerusalem has lower budgets, but these young people are more integrated into the municipal educational system; there is a more integrative model there.

The researchers explain that the two models were created out of a necessity to find solutions in a situation in which the government has avoided deciding on the status and by extension the future of these minors, and not necessarily intentionally.

For example, in Jerusalem the authors found that children without residency status up to age 3 attend preschools located mostly in East Jerusalem; only later do they take part in municipal educational frameworks located in the more centrally located neighborhoods in the city, where they actually live. In practice, an integrative model has been created – but one lacking in resources.

Asylum seekers wait outside the Interior Ministry offices in Tel Aviv, in 2018.Credit: Meged Gozani

That lack has led certain schools in Jerusalem to balk at accepting children of migrants and asylum seekers. “Because our school is located in a neighborhood where many of them live, a lot of them want to come here, but we say no – no more. It’s hard,” said one elementary-school principal in the capital. Another principal said: “I have a limit as to how far I can stretch the blanket. These children need help, but there is a limit how much we can absorb.”

In contrast, in Tel Aviv most of the children of asylum seekers and migrants study in schools in the southern part of the city, where de-facto separation exists in any case. As in the example cited by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, about how “there are no parking problems because there is no parking” in his city – the researchers quote Shirley Rimon, head of the municipal education administration, who admitted: “There is no segregation because there are no Israeli children who live in those neighborhoods. Even if we wanted to have integration, there is no one to do it with.”

However, recently, in another context, Rimon said that in the Shapira neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, only 65 percent of the students are children of foreign nationals – as compared to over 90 percent in the nearby Hatikvah and Neve Sha’anan neighborhoods.

Last month, the Tel Aviv District Court held a hearing on a petition against separation at local schools, in the name of some 300 children lacking legal residency status. A compromise to integrate about 200 of them in schools in the center and north of the city was rejected for technical reasons, and the court is expected to make a final ruling next month.

A teacher at one of the "separate" schools told the researchers about the difference between it and regular schools: “There are two tracks for the bagrut: one for regular Israelis and one for foreigners, an easier one. It is the basis of the curriculum used for Jewish new immigrants and we channel the non-Jewish children of foreigners to it too. In our school it helps them achieve more and so our bagrut [scores] are higher than the national average.”

An asylum seeker from Tel Aviv who was interviewed for the study explained her children's feelings. “They ask all the time why they are separated from other children in the country. They were born here and they are asking what the difference is between them and children with Israeli citizenship. I think the separation is dangerous for children, they are becoming a target for racism,” the mother said.

Women cross the street near Tel Aviv's central bus station.Credit: Moti Milrod

By contrast, a principal at a school with separate classes who was also interviewed expressed opposition to integration. “We need to acknowledge the population and its problems. There must be a clear policy by the government that will determine what it wants, even if it’s the most racist decision in the world. But the decision must be made, otherwise its torture,” he said.

About a week ago, Haaretz reported that asylum seekers will be barred from many employment opportunities in cities heavily populated by foreign nationals, according to new regulations issued by the Interior Ministry, under Ayelet Shaked. Under the new regulations, asylum seekers who receive a form of collective (i.e., temporary) protection from deportation will be limited to working in construction, agriculture, institutional caregiving, hotels or restaurants in the cities in question, starting in October.

The restrictions won’t apply to minors, parents of minors enrolled in local schools or individuals over the age of 60. Among the cities in which asylum seekers will no longer be able to work are Tel Aviv, Eilat, Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Or Yehuda, Bat Yam, Givatayim, Herzliya, Holon, Kiryat Ono, Ramat Gan, Ramat Hasharon, Kfar Shmaryahu, Netanya, Ashdod and Petah Tikva. Most are in the greater Tel Aviv area.

Although the new rules do not apply to minors per se, they are expected to affect those in high school today. In general, a minor who lacks formal status but wants to work, like Israelis his own age, by law, can do so if he or she manage to receive an appropriate visa from the Interior Ministry.

Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, calls the new regulations draconian.

“If the status of asylum seekers was examined and granted as is required by international law, no possibility at all would exist today to continue to abuse them as Shaked is trying to do,” she said.

The West opens doors

Would the situation for offspring of asylum seekers be better in other countries? According to an international comparative study published last month by Rozen's organization, the answer is yes.

Since the status of the children and teenagers in question is derived from the status of their parents, and because the Israeli authorities have avoided reaching a decision on the parents’ asylum requests – these young people are facing a dead end, without a possibility of legalization of their status or receipt of equal rights in the only country many of them know.

According to the refugee hotline's report, which examined 10 Western countries, individuals recognized as refugees, who have lived under supplementary protection or lack any citizenship – will be granted, along with their children, permanent residency status within a short time in Canada or New Zealand; after four years in Finland; after five years in France and Italy; and after eight years in Germany. Even if the parents have lived in the country illegally, the children who were born there will be entitled to citizenship from birth in Canada and the United States; permanent residency leads to citizenship status after 10 years in the United Kingdom and Australia; five years in France; and four years in Germany.

People who have collective protection from deportation, similar to the situation of asylum seekers in Israel, receive temporary resident status for four years in France. Those who remain there after that period are granted residency for 10 more years. A foreign national who lives in Germany legally for eight years is allowed to receive citizenship status if they speak German, have no criminal record and are capable of making a living.

Those recognized as refugees in Germany can receive permanent residency status after three years, and those under collective protection will receive such status within five years, under certain conditions. In Italy, individuals recognized as refugees or residing under collective protection are entitled to a temporary residency permit for five years. Later, they can submit a request for permanent residency; after 10 years they can apply for citizenship. In these three European countries, children are granted the same status as their parents.

In Finland, people who are recognized as refugees or are eligible for collective protection are granted a temporary resident permit for four years. If the circumstances that led to their protective standing remain in force after that period, the permit can be made permanent. In Canada, people recognized as lacking citizenship are eligible to apply for such a permit, and there is also a track for receiving residency on a humanitarian basis, with the principle being that the welfare of the foreign nationals' children should be a consideration in the decision. In New Zealand people are eligible to apply for permanent residency status immediately after receiving collective protection, and at the end of five years they are entitled to apply for citizenship.

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