Israeli Government’s Apathy Is Killing Foreign Workers' Children

There's no limit to the authorities' rolling of eyes and passing the buck in the case of the foreign workers' offspring, who are dying in unsupervised day-care centers.

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African toddlers in an unsupervised facility, in Tel Aviv's Hatikva quarter.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is supposed to protect all children “without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.”

Article 6 demands that governments of all countries “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child,” while Article 3 requires them to take responsibility for setting proper standards for institutions that care for children – especially “in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision.”

The gap between the self-image reflected in Israel’s ratification of the convention, in 1991, and reality is especially great when it comes to the children of foreign workers, who lack any legal status are transparent to the public eye. This is not just a symbolic matter: It has a clear and direct influence on people’s lives, on the chances of babies and toddlers to survive. The government’s apathy kills.

Since February, five infants and toddlers have died in unlicensed and unsupervised day-care centers, also referred to as "warehouses," which are run under the loose if not nonexistent supervision of the state. This is not a new phenomenon; it is well known to the relevant ministers and senior officials. Only the victims change.

That is why it is difficult to accept the claims – which the Economy Ministry rushed to explain on Monday – that there is a problem of a legal lacuna that does not seem to allow government intervention. There is no limit to the authorities' rolling of eyes and passing the buck, even to the point of hinting that the blame should be cast on the parents, most of whom are African refugees whose right to work and live, and to receive asylum has been stubbornly refused by the government.

Eli Yishai and Gideon Sa’ar, as ministers of the interior, believed they had to make asylum seekers' lives a misery, and abandoning some 2,500 children under the age of 3 became part of the policy that considers the refugees an enemy, and their children a cancer.

Two years ago, the state comptroller determined that these “babysitters,” a euphemistic term for the unofficial day-care frameworks in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, neglect their charges for extended periods of time, so that they spend most of their days in cribs without any stimulation; they keep the babies and toddlers in harsh physical conditions of extreme overcrowding; and, in the absence of proper treatment, supervision and attention to the developmental needs of the children, the facilities delay their cognitive and motor development.

The conclusion is clear: The extreme physical and emotional neglect continues over an extended period, during what are clearly critical years for child development.

Last year the state comptroller released a follow-up report, revealing that little had changed and refusing to accept the claim of the Economy Ministry that it was unable to help in this situation. The comptroller’s office even suggested a number of possibilities for action: closing all the day-care centers that were life threatening, training the staff properly, and participating in funding the placement of the infants and young children in recognized, properly run facilities. The report found the ministry’s efforts to be “partial and lacking.”

The responsibility for an overall solution was shifted to the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as the economy and social affairs ministries, but they have been operating very slowly. Indeed, these authorities are in no rush to take responsibility – or maybe that’s the point.

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