Analysis

The UN Plan Is Dead. Could Israel Still Disperse Asylum Seekers Around the Country?

Absorbing tens of thousands in small communities across the country won't be easy

Migrants predominately from Eritrea and Sudan in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzilya, Israel on February 7, 2018.
Ariel Schalit/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed the residents of South Tel Aviv two days ago that he was cancelling an agreement with the United Nations to regularize the status of asylum seekers in Israel. But the matter is far from over.

The plan to expel them was supposed to begin this month but it hasn’t gotten underway because of the Passover holiday and, in any case, the High Court of Justice has frozen the process. However it all ends, the costs of maintaining the asylum seekers keep growing.

Expelling them will cost some $300 million, which comes from the cost of paying compensation for each refugee that leaves the country and a payment to the countries that take them. Spending by the police, the Health Ministry and the Tel Aviv municipality, where the lion’s share of the refugees live, adds up to another 1 billion shekels ($290 million).

Ironically, the cost of the UN program, which would have sent half the asylum seekers to other Western countries and called for the rest to be dispersed throughout Israel, was supposed to help contain these costs.

Netanyahu’s flip-flop isn’t affecting the plans of the Kibbutz Movement, which got underway two months ago and aims to absorb them into the communal settlements, giving them places to live and employment. The decision, made at the start of February by the movement’s secretariat, came in response to appeals from members protesting the government’s expulsion plans.

“Already 10 years ago, when the Interior Ministry subcommittee sought a solution to the refugee situation, the Farmers Association offered to take some of the asylum seekers and employ them as agricultural workers in the periphery in place of foreign guest workers,” said Nir Meir, the Kibbutz Movement’s secretary general. “But the interior minister back then, Eli Yishai, vetoed the plan and the [refugees] stayed in south Tel Aviv.”

Meir said there has to be a practical solution to the asylum seekers’ problem, one that is acceptable to the international community. Dr. Avi Ofer of Kibbutz Ma’anot has spent the past month and a half traveling between kibbutzim to check how many families they can take in and what kind of employment is available.

Meir admits the movement can’t help with absorbing most of the asylum seekers. He estimates that all told they can take in no more than a few hundred families and that no single one can take in large enough numbers for the refugees to feel they have a local community.

He said one solution is for kibbutzim in a particular area to coordinate with the regional council to organize joint activities and local community centers. As to the cost, Meir said: “Of course, we’re not going to do it at our expense. We’re not altruistic. But anyone who’s renting an apartment in Tel Aviv to an asylum seeker isn’t doing it for free either.”

And will the asylum seekers want to do farm work?

“At the end of the day, the government operates according to the options available to it. One option is not to give entry permits to foreign workers from Thailand and to tell the refugees that the work the Thais were doing until now is the work they are allowed to do,” Meir said. “It may not be an optimal solution, but it’s a better investment than the cost of expelling them or the cost of housing them in Holot or pay them thousands of dollars.”

The fact is, however, that until now few refugees have sought agricultural work in Israel. A group of moshavim from the Arava tried to recruit them five years ago. But the refugees, who were mainly from Darfur, didn’t stay long.

Eyal Blum, head of the Central Arava Regional Council, said he is ready to try again. “The farm sector has a labor shortage and we would be happy to do another pilot program to absorb refugees. But right now the government isn’t enabling them to work here.”

There is any number of obstacles to enlisting asylum seeker for farm work. For one, the farmers say they don’t work as hard as Thai guest workers who do much of the work today. Unlike the Thais, they haven’t come to Israel for a limited period to do that kind of work and send money back home to their families.

The refugees left their homelands to build a new life elsewhere. They don’t want to work in hothouses but prefer life in the cities. However, given the choice of being expelled or working in agriculture, especially if it includes financial incentives, many may give it a second thought.

In any event, agricultural work isn’t a solution for all the 16,000 asylum seekers who were supposed to remain in Israel under the UN agreement.

In fact, the population may be larger than the UN plan was addressing. The Population and Immigration Authroty estimates there are 38,000 refugees in Israel illegally, but Tel Aviv says there could be as many as 50,000. Even more foreigners from countries like Romania, Georgia and the Philippines are resident in Israel illegally.

Even if the government undertakes to disperse them throughout the country in other cities and towns, the kind of work the refugees have been doing, mainly in hotels and restaurants, is only available in a few places in the periphery, like Eilat, Tiberias and Arad, because of its proximity to the Dead Sea.

Arad did play host to refugees seven years ago, but they left after legislation aimed at preventing refugees from concentrating in Tel Aviv was canceled.

“Small towns have enough trouble just standing on their own two feet. To send a distressed population to them would be a big blow,” said one Arab resident, who asked not to be named. “The hotels that were employing the refugees pay badly. Whole families were taken in that the welfare office had to help. This is a distressed population that relies on assistance for which the local authority isn’t getting any extra budget. It will crowd the educational and welfare system.”