Israel Preparing to Deport Autistic Teen to Philippines ‘For Her Own Good’

Michel, a Filipina teenage girl, was taken out of her father’s custody three years ago. Now, when she no longer speaks the language and has no contact with her family, Israel wants to deport her to the Philippines

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Michel at the Akim NGO facility, this month.
Michel at the Akim NGO facility, this month.Credit: Hadas Parush
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

Michel is sitting in a Tel Aviv apartment watching TV. She is almost 16, she’s autistic, and she doesn’t know she’s in Israel on borrowed time. “I like it here with my friends,” she says.

She is alone in Israel. Her parents are in the Philippines and are not interested in seeing her. Everyone agrees she’s in the best place for her. And yet, all those involved in her case believe the authorities are about to decide to deport her.

Michel’s (fictitious name) life became difficult before her first birthday. Her mother abandoned her in the Philippines, and she grew up with a relative, where she suffered regular violence and abuse. At age 10 she was sent to her father, who was living in Israel with a partner and had been granted temporary residency status.

But Michel did not fare well in Israel, either. She says she was kept alone in a closed, dark room most of the day.

About three years ago she was found wandering in the streets of Tel Aviv alone, at which point she was placed under the auspices of the welfare authorities. Professionals initially thought she was mentally and developmentally disabled, but later diagnosed her with autism.

Officials suspected she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the violent abuse she had been through. The authorities removed her from her home and placed her in a facility run by the Akim NGO for people with disabilities. Meanwhile, her father broke up with his partner and he was deported to the Philippines.

Michel shares her apartment with five other children and is living a peaceful life. She studies agriculture, music and yoga in school, and in the afternoon attends classes on Pilates and dog training. “It’s fun to live with friends in the same house,” she says. “Most of all I like using the iPad, and in my notebook I write what bothers me.”

Michel with the house mother Mazal Peretz, this August..Credit: Hadas Parush

Near her bed hangs a story she wrote. She reads out the beginning: “I want to have a good day tomorrow and I hope no one teases me in school.”

The Akim facility changed her life. The house mother of her group home, Mazal Peretz, says, “When she first moved her she behaved impulsively, and she would yell. On the first day she asked me if we’d hit her if she wet her bed. I told her, ‘No, my dear, we don’t hit here.’ Since then she hasn’t wet her bed once.”

But Michel is in Israel on borrowed time. No one talks about her potential deportation to the Philippines within her earshot, and she isn’t aware it could happen. The last time the subject came up she wound up hospitalized in the psychiatric emergency ward.

Most requests are rejected

Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Israel is obliged to take care of Michel as long as she’s a minor. After that the state will no longer be responsible for her, and will stop financing her stay in Akim as well as any of her therapies. To prevent Michel from finding herself alone in two years, Akim petitioned the humanitarian committee advising the Population Authority to grant her a status that would enable her to remain here and receive care like autistic Israeli citizens, even after she turns 18.

But the humanitarian committee rejects most requests, and all those involved in Michel’s case believe she will be rejected, too. Some committee members think children should be deported as young as possible, so that they don’t get attached to life in Israel.

Michel at the Akim NGO's apartment in Tel Aviv, this August.Credit: Hadas Parush

The committee discusses dozens of cases involving refugees, asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking and domestic violence every month. Between 2017 and 2021 the committee ruled on 1,397 cases and approved 585 of the requests – mostly when lives were in danger. It’s rare for the committee to recommend granting legal status in other cases.

In a discussion last month in the Youth Court, a Tel Aviv municipal social worker said: “Maybe a miracle will happen and she’ll get status on humanitarian grounds.”

The rejected requests can be appealed in court. The court has intervened in 478 cases over this period, mostly instructing the authorities to reexamine the requests.

Social officials told Haaretz that Michel’s case is heartbreaking, but claimed the law prevents them from letting her stay in Israel. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked or Population Authority director general Tomer Moskowitz are the only ones who can prevent her deportation to the Philippines, even if the committee recommends giving her residency, they said.

Behind a wall and a barbed wire fence

The law in Israel stipulates that children without residency status must be deported, including those who have been taken from their parents. Children from Eritrea, Sudan, Ukraine and Ethiopia are the exception, since nationals of these countries cannot be deported.

Social Affairs Ministry figures show that there are 210 children in ministry facilities who have no residency, most of them presumably Sudanese and Eritreans. Eight of the children are handicapped and younger than 17, and four are 18-21 years old. Three of the children are slated for deportation.

But Michel’s situation is different. Since she’s autistic, with no family willing to take her in, she must find an appropriate facility in the country she left almost six years ago and whose language she no longer knows, according to her caretakers.

Michelle at the Akim NGO's apartment in Tel Aviv, this August.Credit: Hadas Parush

Israeli officials found one option: the state-run Elsie Gaches Village, in the capital Manila. The facility is surrounded by a wall and a barbed wire fence. It is home to 625 intellectually disabled adults and children, although its maximum capacity is supposed to be 470. It has 14 housing units, each with dozens of people. Akim’s legal director, attorney Irit Gazit, sent the humanitarian committee quotes by Philippine civil society organizations, saying that disabled minors living in poverty face sexual exploitation, bullying, and education and employment challenges in the country.

Akim’s director in Tel Aviv, Tom Amzaleg, says, “A simple Google search reveals information about the facility that they failed to present to the court.” The Social Services Ministry told the court it was aware of the difference between Akim and the alternative in the Philippines, adding, “There’s no doubt the care here is far better, but we fear the drawn-out proceedings will ultimately hurt her. The more time passes, the more difficult her return will be.”

The social services are aware of Michel’s complicated situation. “If we don’t give her residency by the time she turns 18 she will be a transparent person here,” the social worker told the court last month. Meanwhile, she said, “She’s putting down roots and forming bonds.”

The Elsie Gaches Village, in the Filipino capital of Manila.Credit: google street view

Working on the assumption that the Population Authority will decide to deport Michel, social services officials want to deport her as soon as possible. “Our experience with these requests, regrettably, is that except in cases of risk to life the petitions are rejected,” the social worker told the court. “Isn’t her life in danger?” asked the judge Tova Perry. “Being 16 and alone in the world?”

The social worker said: “I agree with the court’s opinion, but I’m not the one approving the requests.”

The Social Affairs Ministry stated in court that Michel must return to her homeland: “We have the minor’s wellbeing in mind.”

Gazit believes Michel’s case is the kind of exception the committee should approve. “This girl found herself here against her will, there’s no doubt her place is here and we’re doing everything we can. She has no ties to the Philippines. She doesn’t speak the language and her family isn’t waiting for her there. We’d like her to stay as long as possible, at least until the age of 18, so she can acquire better means to handle the difficult life waiting for her there.”

The judge summarized the case, stating, “This minor, if released into the community the way she is, will find her life in immediate danger. She’s in danger of being exploited. This is a minor who cannot look after her most basic needs.” The court has no authority to decide on Michel’s residency status in Israel. Nine months have passed, and still no date has been set for another court debate.

Michelle at the Akim NGO's apartment in Tel Aviv, this August.Credit: Hadas Parush

The Social Affairs Ministry said in response: “The ministry was asked to check if an appropriate facility could be found in the girl’s home country and after a search, such a facility was found that could take her in. The court received a survey of the girl’s needs, including cultural and family affiliation.”

The Population Authority said: “The minor entered Israel in 2016 and since December that year has been here illegally. The case is being handled by the relevant officials.”

The Tel Aviv municipality said: “The minor’s case is being handled by the authorized court. Officials believe the minor should be allowed to obtain residency status for humanitarian reasons, which Akim has applied for. However, it is not to her benefit to drag out the proceedings, and we hope a decision will be made soon in her case.”

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