There are at least 100,000 foreigners illegally employed in Israel, a new Knesset Research and Information Center study, released Sunday, shows.

The actual number of illegal foreign workers is probably much higher, but the lack of accurate information makes it impossible to identify them, the report notes.

The report also pointed to the Oz immigration enforcement unit’s failure to meet their annual targets for deporting illegal residents, reaching barely 11 percent of its yearly quota.

Israel permits foreign nationals to work in at specific jobs for which there is a shortage of Israelis willing or able to do the work. These sectors are construction, agriculture, elder care and ethnic restaurants, and as of December 2010, there were roughly 76,000 non-Israelis (excluding Palestinians) working in these jobs.

However there are a large number of foreigners employed illegally in other sectors. The Knesset report attempted to map out the illegal-worker population to find out how they affected the local job market, and proposed ways in which to alleviate the problem.

According to the report, the largest group of illegal foreign workers entered Israel under a tourist visa and stayed on to work after their visas expired.

At the end of 2010 there were 101,500 people in the country whose tourist visas had expired, a number that has remained relatively constant since the early 2000s, with a 20% fluctuation in either direction.

The report stated that professionals in the Interior or Industry, Trade and Labor ministries estimated that a majority of them had stayed on to work.

According to Population Immigration and Borders Authority (PIBA) statistics, over 40% of the people who overstayed their tourist visas were from the former Soviet Union, 9% were from Jordan and 6% of them from Mexico. Other countries that had substantial numbers of illegal workers here (above 3,000 people) are Columbia, Turkey, Romania, Brazil and Nepal.

The second major group of illegal workers entered Israel with a work permit allowing them to work in one of the authorized fields, but either overstayed the 63 months permitted to them, or left their assigned workplace and began working illegally, either in another sector, such as housecleaning, or for a different employer. According to PIBA, there are roughly 13,000 such people currently working in the country.

According to the Knesset report, as of December 15, 2010, there were 31,840 African migrants who crossed over the Egyptian border illegally.

A majority of them are recognized as asylum seekers and carry a 2 Aleph 5 type visa.

“Unlike foreign workers who enter the country with a specific permit allowing them to work, carriers of 2 Aleph 5 visas are not employed under a particular quota and their employment is not necessarily reported to the tax authorities or the National Insurance Institute.

Since they are not entitled to subsistence benefits from the state, the assumption is that they all work for a living,” read the report.

While their visa does not permit them to work, Israel has been loath to take enforcement measures against their employers for fear of creating a humanitarian crisis. The cabinet has decided that they would only begin enforcement in six months once the construction of a holding facility, which will provide the migrants with an alternative source of subsistence, is completed.

The report stated that based on partial information gleaned from National Insurance Institute figures, it was clear that there is a negative correlation between the number of foreigners working without work permits in the hospitality industry and the number of Israelis joining the industry. It also pointed to a similar correlation in the services sector and in employment by manpower companies.

From tax figures the study found that while employers reported a total of 100,000 foreign workers, only 40,000 of them were employed in sectors for which permits are approved.

“From this we can surmise that 60,000 foreign national are working in non-permitted fields,” read the report.

The report suggested several ways to reduce the number of foreigners working without permits. One of the ways suggested was to employ African migrants under quotas authorized for foreign workers in the permitted sectors.

According to the report, the move would necessitate a degree of job training and issuing of work permits, but would also solve some of the practices currently found in the field, like the charging of exorbitant commission fees from foreign workers wishing to work in Israel and the “revolving door policy,” in which workers are deported so that new ones can enter the market.

The drawbacks, according to the report, are the additional incentive this would provide for additional migrants to attempt to enter the country and opposition from parties who benefit from the current system.

Regarding the substantial population of illegal foreign workers who are in the country under expired visas, the report stated that it was the mandate of PIBA and its Oz unit to deport all illegal residents. In August 2008 the cabinet determined that by the end of 2013 all illegal residents must be deported, setting ambitious quotas for every year.

According to Knesset figures, PIBA has repeatedly failed to meet the quotas. In 2009, for instance, 20,000 people were supposed to be deported when in practice only 1,261 left the country. In 2010 the numbers were slightly better with Oz managing to deport 2,498 people, but still succeeding in reaching only 11% of its 22,000-people quota.

On Monday, the Knesset subcommittee on foreign workers met to debate the effect of illegal foreign workers on the Israeli job market and enforcement measures taken against the phenomenon.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, MK Ya’acov Katz (National Union), chairman of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, said that he saw the African migrants as the most significant challenge facing Israel.

Katz said that while the number of illegal foreign workers has remained roughly the same for a decade, the number of African migrants was constantly growing. He said that with decisive action, the foreign worker problem could be solved in a short time, but that when it came to the “infiltrators” Israel had to open its eyes to the threat.

“Whereas the foreign workers all have passports and are citizens of countries that Israel has formal relations with, countries that we can deport them to, the African migrants are invisible.

We don’t know where they come from, we don’t know if we can ever return them, we don’t know precisely how many of them there are and the government is doing very little to face the challenge,” Katz said.

“Israel has taken defensive measures and is building a fence and will soon build holding centers, but I’d like to see offensive action by the government.”

PIBA said in response that for the past few months it was working intensively to create a new database so as to avoid guesses regarding the numbers of illegal foreign workers.

“We are conducting enforcement against illegal workers no matter which visa they entered the country with. The fact that a foreign national continues to reside in Israel after his or her visa expires is against the law, whether they entered under a tourist or work visa.

“The quotas on deportation of illegal workers were set by the government in 2008, before the responsibility for enforcement was transferred to PIBA.

That said, it is important to note that since PIBA took over responsibility for enforcement, the reduction of the number of illegal residents has been reduced using several channels, including deportation, voluntary deportation and status determination. The entire issue is currently being examined in light of the current realities,” the response read.

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