A Second Chance to Get It Right for Asylum Seekers (And Israelis)

Any solution to Israel's migrant-workers problem must take into account the residents of south Tel Aviv and the asylum seekers themselves.

Aeyal Gross
Aeyal Gross
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An African asylum seeker protests for recognition as a refugee, Tel Aviv, Israel, Feb. 11, 2014.
An African asylum seeker protests for recognition as a refugee, Tel Aviv, Israel, Feb. 11, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod
Aeyal Gross
Aeyal Gross

In wake of the High Court of Justice ruling that determined that imprisoning asylum seekers in Saharonim Prison and the Holot detention facility is unconstitutional, there has been a lot of belligerence. The attackers are talking about the hardships of south Tel Aviv’s residents, who bear the burden of absorbing asylum seekers into their neighborhood, which even beforehand suffered many problems. But it should be said that, beyond the fact that it is impossible to solve one population problem by causing serious harm to another – in the guise of imprisonment without trial – the Anti-Infiltration Law did not actually help the residents of south Tel Aviv. And we have to wonder whether anyone seriously thinks the politicians behind it were genuinely concerned about them.

Had concern for the residents of south Tel Aviv been a priority, the state would have tried to improve the situation of these neighborhoods and their residents, rather than passing a law that makes it possible to imprison fewer than 10 percent of the asylum seekers and fails to ameliorate the distress of south Tel Avivians.

In the words of Justice Isaac Amit, the approximately half a billion shekels ($137 million) the government invested in imprisoning a few thousand asylum seekers could have borne different fruit had it been invested in the welfare of the residents of south Tel Aviv, and in finding other solutions for asylum seekers already in Israel.

In effect, government policy encourages the concentration of asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv. We can think of three related issues where a rational policy could make life easier for the residents of south Tel Aviv, and bring about a distribution of the burden throughout the country.

First of all – housing. Housing facilities that are really open and voluntary, in various sites around the country (and not a facility in the Negev like Holot, which is distant from any settled area, is run by the Israel Prison Service and, in effect, functions as a prison), to be offered to asylum seekers as places to live. The possibility of living in housing in suitable conditions, in places near job opportunities, could lead to an easing of the burden on a neighborhood that was in distress to begin with.

Second – employment. Today, Israel has a vague policy in which the prohibition against working is not enforced for asylum seekers, but on the other hand they don’t receive a work permit. Asylum seekers who cannot be legally expelled could be given a work permit and encouraged to work in places where there are a shortage of workers. Instead of Israel absorbing additional work migrants using the revolving-door method, the asylum seekers would be able to earn a respectable living.

Third – health. Asylum seekers are not given access to national health insurance, and are therefore dependent on the voluntary open clinic run by Physicians for Human Rights in Jaffa, and the clinic established by the Health Ministry in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Providing access to health services all over the country will enable them to live in areas other than Tel Aviv.

In the previous High Court ruling on the issue, Justice Uzi Vogelman criticized the government’s argument that there were only two possibilities: either imprisoning asylum seekers; or allowing them to continue living in south Tel Aviv without proper arrangements. The state actually did exploit the distress of the residents of south Tel Aviv in order to cause incitement against asylum seekers, instead of developing a proper policy.

Human rights organizations noted after the court ruling that now is the time to take real steps to help both the residents of south Tel Aviv and the asylum seekers – by both investing money to improve the welfare, health and housing services in the locales populated by asylum seekers, and creating a natural population distribution through the granting of work permits and incentives to business owners throughout the country.

As Justice Miriam Naor said in the ruling, in which she emphasized the need for solutions that will also take into account the residents of south Tel Aviv, any solution must reflect the idea that, like all human beings, asylum seekers are also entitled to protection of their human rights. The government and Knesset now have an opportunity to turn over a new leaf on the issue.

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