Appalled by media reports of the subhuman conditions to which some children of illegal foreign workers are subjected while their parents are at work, President Moshe Katsav on Sunday called on the Immigration Authority to establish an inter-ministerial task force, to deal with the problem.
Katsav had convened an urgent meeting of representatives of all relevant government bodies to set guidelines for providing these children with elementary health, education and social welfare services.
The president said the inter-ministerial task force should include the Immigration Police, Mesila, a social welfare unit within the Tel Aviv Municipality, and Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, the executive director of the National Council for the Child, as Katsav's personal representative.
Katsav had been shocked to learn that there are 370 children below the age of six who are living in overcrowded, clandestine circumstances.
"No one can be indifferent to the suffering of these children," he said. "We must find a way to deal with the problem so that there will not be irreversible psychological damage."
Kadman echoed Katsav's concerns and sought to differentiate between the vast number of illegal foreign workers and their children, who are innocent victims of the system.
"Even if we want to deport illegals," said Kadman, "we cannot ignore the children who live here without status. We are obligated on a humane level to care for their health, their education and their well-being. That doesn't imply an endorsement of illegal immigration - it simply separates the two issues."
Despite his strong criticism of the government's neglect of illegals' kids, Kadman cited two points worthy of praise: Mesila (a Hebrew acronym for the Center for Assistance and Information for the Foreign Community), and the Education Ministry, which provides schooling for these children and does not pass on information about them to the Immigration Police.
For as long as a family of immigrant workers is not deported, said Kadman, provisions must be made for the education of the children in that family. "We must first and foremost consider the children and not the status of their parents," he said.
Kadman castigated the Social Affairs Ministry for escaping its responsibility and reneging on its undertakings.
Immigration Police officer Eliahu Aharoni told Katsav that the Immigration Police no longer apprehended children under the age of 14, nor did they arrest children from single-parent families. The big problem, he said, is what is known as the "baby visa."
Because minors are not deported unless their parentage and country of origin are fully ascertained, and because of the leniency accorded to single-parent families, within half an hour of an illegal worker being arrested, a child often appears on the scene as a pawn in the detainee's defense.
Police then have to conduct a battery of tests to ascertain whether there is a biological relationship between the detainee and the infant. Most of the time there isn't, said Aharoni.
There's also the problem of detainees who claim to be minors when they are not, but have no papers to furnish as evidence one way or the other.
A Health Ministry official said that 2,000 children of foreign workers carry health insurance and have been registered with the Meuhedet Sick Fund, which has a no-divulgence agreement with the Immigration Police. However, there are many more children who are not insured, he said, because their parents are afraid of informants.