Israel to Close Only Mental Health Clinic for Refugees

Jaffa’s Gesher Clinic provides mental health services to asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants but is chronically underfunded and understaffed

African migrants demonstrate outside the Rwanda embassy in Herzliya, Israel, January 22, 2018
JACK GUEZ / AFP

The only clinic in Israel that provides mental health services to asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants is expected to close in June.

Last week employees of Jaffa’s Gesher Clinic learned that the center’s operating budget will run out in two months, and there are no plans to renew it.

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The clinic’s director, Dr. Ido Lurie, resigned at the beginning of the year and has not been replaced. Employees have been uncertain about their future for several months, and in some cases salaries have been paid late. The Health Ministry has not solicited bids to outsource the clinic’s services. As a result Gesher’s clients, who are not eligible for government health services, will lose their access to mental health care.

Gesher serves asylum seekers with emotional problems and post-trauma disorders, including survivors of torture camps in Sinai. It has treated around 800 people since it opened in early 2014, and currently has nearly 300 patients.

The chronically underfunded and understaffed clinic is only open for nine hours a week. It has a waiting list of 200 people who will have to wait up to 10 months to be seen. More than a third of those on the waiting list have acute problems, and include people who had been forcibly hospitalized, who are suicidal or who otherwise pose a risk to themselves and others.

Dr. Zoe Gutzeit, the director of the migrant and refugee program of Physicians for Human Rights, and Michal Pinchuk, the executive director of the Assaf aid organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, called on the Health Ministry in a joint letter to gurantee continuity of care for the clinic’s current patients .

In a response, the Health Ministry said it was working toward issuing a request for proposals for the services offered by Gesher and also examining options to guarantee continuity of care “in the event the existing service at Gesher ends before the described service is in place.” The ministry refused to discuss time tables or planned solutions.

This move contradicts statements made by the ministry in March of last year, when it said there is a plan to expand mental health services to asylum seekers by reassigning some of the services provided by the Gesher Clinic to Ichilov Hospital’s mental health clinics, the Jaffa community clinic for mental health and Be’er Yaakov Hospital. This plan was announced after Gesher, in August 2016, refused to accept new patients because of the heavy workload. Nothing came of the ministry’s declarations.

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Gutzeit said: “Since it was opened in 2014 and to date the Gesher clinic has been in constant distress, which only gets worse. Hundreds of people, including victims of human trafficking and torture who are suffering from severe trauma, and people who have been released from forced hospitalization and are at risk, are left without any treatment or support, because the clinic isn’t getting funding or staff.

“For more than two years we have been asking and warning the Health Ministry about the increasing distress, and the Health Ministry keeps sweet-talking us with promises about broadening the response, when in fact, nothing is done,” Gutzeit added.

“Already in January we warned that the clinic was on the verge of collapse, but we didn’t get any real attention,” she said. Now hundreds of patients who even now are barely hanging on will be thrown out without any assurance of continuous treatment, while hundreds of others will be left without any help.”

As previously reported by Haaretz, 70 percent of the Gesher patients are young men, mainly from Eritrea. Seventy percent of the patients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from their experiences in their countries of origin and in Sinai en route to Israel.