Pushing Israel's Asylum Seekers Into a Legal Twilight Zone

Asylum seekers must be allowed to work legally. Not by a policy of deliberate disregard or lack of enforcement, but by providing them with a legal way to support themselves.

When the new interior minister, Gideon Sa’ar, visited the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv earlier this month, one resident reportedly said to him: “If they’re refugees, give them whatever they should be getting. If they’re infiltrators, deport them” ("Sa'ar: Israel's policy is to deport illegal infiltrators," Haaretz, April 10).

In a single, succinct sentence, this simple demand exposes everything that is wrong with the behavior of this government, and that of its predecessor, toward the asylum seekers in Israel and the Israeli residents of poor neighborhoods, which is where most asylum-seekers are concentrated. It exposes the fact that these are not two separate groups for whom granting rights to one must necessarily happen at the other’s expense. These are two populations that require integrated solutions to their distress, even though politicians such as MK Eli Yishai (Shas) and MK Miri Regev (Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu) prefer to pit them against each other. The purpose of the demand that they be given “whatever they should be getting” is not only to allow them the opportunity to live with dignity, but also to make sure they do not congregate in, of all possible places, the country's worst neighborhoods.

For years, the State of Israel has implemented a policy full of contradictions. It avoids deporting most of the asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea because of the danger awaiting them in their countries of origin. Yet, at the same time, it refuses to recognize them as refugees and insists on calling them “infiltrators.” It claims they are “economic immigrants” who came only to better their lives, yet at the same time adds that they cannot be deported because doing so would put them at risk. The state does not explain how these two assertions can exist alongside each other. It takes the ostrich position — on the one hand, it states that employers who break the law by hiring asylum seekers will not face prosecution or be fined, and on the other, it refuses to issue work permits to the asylum seekers.

In this way, the State of Israel pushes asylum seekers into a legal twilight zone. They can find permanent or temporary make-work jobs that enable them to survive, but no more than that. They live on the fringes of society because that is where the state would like them to stay. As several residents of the southern neighborhoods say, only some parts of Israeli society pay the price of excluding asylum seekers. When the state denies asylum seekers even minimal subsistence, it pushes them into crowded apartments in socioeconomically weak areas. When they have no other means of survival, some turn to crime, and others wander the streets with nothing to do.

The outcry of the residents of south Tel Aviv does not stem from racism or ignorance, but rather from a terrible situation that has been created here under the auspices of Israeli governments. The equation is a simple one: Take a group of thousands of young people and promise them that they will be able to survive, though barely, since they will have to live sometimes 30 people to an apartment, and only in the poorest neighborhoods. The result: an intolerable burden in certain areas.

Granting work permits to the asylum seekers in Israel will ensure that they can live with dignity, and it will help solve some of the problems created as a result of their concentration in economically distressed neighborhoods.

The responsible officials in the Israel Police already realize that to resolve this impossible situation, the asylum seekers must be allowed to work legally. Not by a policy of deliberate disregard or lack of enforcement, not through informal, crooked arrangements, but by providing them with a legal way to support themselves. As long as the Interior Ministry continues to bring in tens of thousands of foreign workers every year, we should not be paying heed to the hypocritical claim that giving work permits to asylum seekers will displace Israeli workers from the job market and increase the unemployment rate.

The call to deport them if they are infiltrators or give them "whatever they should be getting" if they are refugees also lays bare the big lie at the foundation of the Interior Ministry’s policy toward the citizens of Sudan and Eritrea. For years, Israel's treatment of this population has been to allow them to stay here while ignoring them. The big lie that the government has sold to the public (“they’re all work migrants”) does not match its policy. Countless times, Interior Ministry and Justice Ministry officials have told the courts, human-rights organizations and the media that a policy of “temporary protection” or “non-deportation” applies to this population. What this means is that, on the one hand, nobody checks on an individual basis whether the members of this population are refugees or provides them with the basic rights that refugees are due, but that on the other hand, these people are not deported either.

High-ranking officials of the government authorities have said numerous times that deporting Sudanese and Eritreans to their countries of origin would put them in danger. Throughout the world (including in countries that have no common border with Sudan or Eritrea), more than 70 percent of refugees from these countries have been officially recognized. In Israel, not a single Sudanese or Eritrean has been recognized as a refugee, because the state is keeping them out of its asylum system. This policy, by which most of the asylum seekers live their lives in a legal vacuum, doesn't seem to work. In fact, it harms asylum seekers and Israeli citizens alike. If they are indeed no more than “economic migrants,” let the state explain why it does not deport them. But if danger awaits them in their countries of origin, the time has come for the State of Israel to grant them full rights.

Attorney Yonatan Berman is the head of the Clinic for Migrants’ Rights at the College of Law and Business. Attorney Oded Feller works at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel as the attorney in charge of addressing human-rights infringements by the Interior Ministry’s Population Registration.

Moti Milrod