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For African Asylum Seekers, No Way Out Of Israel

An Israeli law enacted in mid-2017 amounts to a de facto salary cut for African asylum seekers, plunging the community into a financial crisis.

African asylum seekers in Israel's Negev desert
African asylum seekers in Israel's Negev desert
Steven Davidson

JERUSALEM - In May 2017, Israel effectively cut one-fifth of asylum seekers" wages, hoping people such as Eden Tasfamariam would leave the country.

This single mother and asylum seeker from Eritrea fled to Israel almost 10 years ago with her children. She did so after the Eritrean government imprisoned them as retribution when her then husband, a conscripted soldier who had been imprisoned for arguing with a superior, fled the country. Under surveillance and fearing for their lives, they left Eritrea shortly after their release.

But in Israel, they've found a hostile government that views asylum seekers like Tasfamariam as economic migrants, officially refers to them as "infiltrators' and grants them few rights. Their dire financial straits have been worsened by Israel's "Deposit Law," which has plunged their whole community into an unprecedented financial crisis. Designed to push asylum seekers to leave, the law forces those who employ migrants to deposit 20% of their salaries into an escrow account that can only be accessed at a bank in Ben Gurion Airport as they depart Israel.

Many, including Tasfamariam, have nowhere else to go, and their harsh memories from home compel them to stay put.

We didn't come here for the money.

"There is no future here, but nobody will leave because of the 20%," said Tasfamariam, who serves as director of the Eritrean Women's Center in Tel Aviv. "It's better to die here in Israel. Even if they took 50% of our money, nobody will leave. We didn't come here for the money. We came here to save our lives."

Israel hosts roughly 34,000 asylum seekers, many of whom entered through the Sinai land border beginning in 2005, after escaping military conscription amounting to slave labor in Eritrea and genocide and war in Sudan. Though Israel is a signatory of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, it grants almost no asylum requests; as of June 2018, it had granted refugee status to only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese. Another 1,400 people have "humanitarian status," a level of protection a step below refugee status that allows them to drive, travel and work. All other asylum seekers are on "conditional release" visas they must renew every two to six months. Concentrated in south Tel Aviv, they have no safety net, no tax relief, cannot access social services or public healthcare, and mainly work near-minimum-wage jobs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has implemented various efforts to keep or force them out of Israel. His government completed a 150-mile (245km) barrier across the country's southern border in 2013. Last year he attempted to deport all asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda against their will — a plan he was forced to abandon when he was unable to find a country willing to take them amid an international backlash.

"After the failure to expel infiltrators, this deposit law is the only legal tool we have today to encourage infiltrators to leave voluntarily," Yoav Kish, a member of the Knesset, Israel's lawmaking body, has said.

Israel grants almost no asylum requests.

The already impoverished community is now struggling to survive. Asylum seekers find themselves unable to pay for basic necessities. The Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) reported a 33% increase in the number of people asking for food aid in the year after the law's implementation. ASSAF has also seen a massive rise in mental health issues, drug abuse and domestic violence cases among families feeling the financial strain. Some desperate women are turning to prostitution, ASSAF and community members said.

Adam, an asylum seeker from Darfur who wished not to disclose his last name, said he asks friends for loans because he can't pay all his bills.

"I feel very ashamed," said Adam, who is falling deeper into debt. "I know something is not right."

The Knesset also requires employers to deposit an extra 16% into an asylum seeker employee's pension fund — discouraging them from employing asylum seekers at all. Community members estimate that 15–20% of asylum seekers lost their jobs after the deposit law's passage.

To compensate, asylum seekers are working up to 16 hours per day. Like many others, Adam's roommate began working off the books, picking up a job in construction after the law was passed. Exposed to dangerous working conditions, the man injured his leg on site. Without insurance or access to public healthcare, his only treatment option required thousands of shekels he didn't have. He still can't walk normally months later.

Eritrean asylum seekers at Levinsky park Tel Aviv — Photo: Rudychaimg

Tasfamariam said single mothers suffer in particular because they can't work such long hours. They have to pick up their children from kindergarten or from unsafe, illegal "baby warehouses" that are often their only childcare option.

Amid the turmoil, Tasfamariam's husband left her. As she explained, more men are abandoning their wives and children because they struggle to care for themselves — let alone a family — with the 20% pay cut. She now sometimes works from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. six or seven days per week to get by.

A single mother may make 3,500 shekels ($960) a month after the deposit, Tasfamariam said. Monthly rent may cost 2,500–3000 shekels, and daycare approximately 1,000 shekels.

"What about food? Clothes? Healthcare? There's no money for any of it," she said.

These regulations are completely blind to human life.

Evictions have skyrocketed, as well. "To be a vulnerable Eritrean single mother, your living standards are probably you living in the corner of someone's living room with your children," said Adi Drori-Avraham, ASSAF's public awareness and advocacy coordinator. Mothers report that hosts sometimes demand housekeeping services or even sex, she said.

A recent amendment dropped the required deposit to 6% for certain vulnerable groups, including women and human trafficking victims. But even that rate is untenable, according to asylum seekers and advocates. In the case of human trafficking victims — many of whom were kidnapped, tortured and raped in the Sinai Peninsula on their way to Israel — by changing the rate, they would be disclosing their traumatic past to the depositor: their employer. Due to bureaucratic hurdles, human trafficking victims have yet to see their rates reduced months later, according to the workers' rights organization Kav LaOved (KLO) and members of the community, and no one eligible has recouped the extra 14% previously deposited.

"These regulations, how they're being enacted, are completely blind to human life and experience," Drori-Avraham said.

Despite its devastating impact, the deposit law is failing to compel asylum seekers to leave in significant numbers as intended. Most who had the financial means or family sponsorships to find asylum elsewhere have already left.

Much of the population still in Israel are the most vulnerable: "single mothers, torture victims, people with disabilities," Drori-Avraham said. "The children, they've never been anywhere else. They were born here. What are you going to do with them?"

The prospect of obtaining deposit money upon departure has proven illusory for many people as well. If they change jobs or their company goes out of business, people often lose the deposit money. There has been little enforcement by the Ministry of Interior to ensure employers are properly depositing money, according to KLO. The group found that half the time, employers were depositing only part of the amounts they owed into people's accounts, and for a quarter of the accounts no money at all. Employers sometimes make deposits into the wrong bank accounts or pocket the money themselves. Unable to personally monitor these accounts, departing asylum seekers sometimes go to the airport only to learn there is no money waiting for them as promised.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior did not respond to Refugees Deeply's requests for comment, though it has previously admitted enforcement has been lacking. KLO has joined other organizations in seeking to overturn the deposit law and awaits a decision from the Israeli Supreme Court.

Tasfamariam, for her part, has languished since 2015 as she awaits a decision on her family's asylum application to Canada. Sometimes, her youngest daughter — born in Israel and still without any legal status — asks: "When will we go to Canada?"

She turns to her 5-year-old girl. "Maybe next week we will go."

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