Thai worker 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With the aim of expelling every illegal resident by 2013, including 20,000 this year, the newly formed Oz unit has plenty of work on its hands.
The new unit, part of the Interior Ministry's National Immigration Authority, arrested 221 people during its first two weeks of existence. The unit began work on July 1 and is gearing up for a major expulsion operation in August.
The deportation of illegal aliens was the focus of a special session at the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers on Tuesday.
As of January, there were 280,000 foreigners living in Israel illegally, according to the Interior Ministry. Of these, 118,000 were foreign workers who entered the country legally and either lost their status or stayed after their five-year permits expired. An additional 90,000 were people who entered the country on a tourist visa and did not leave when it expired.
The remainder is made up of 24,000 infiltrators and asylum-seekers, and 2,000 minors who were born here to parents from other countries and have no legal status.
The latter have been the subject of several protests over the past few weeks. The most recent one, held on Saturday evening in Tel Aviv, saw 600 people come out to demonstrate against the deportation of children and families.
A study conducted by the Knesset Information and Research Center found three main reasons for the rise in the number of illegal residents: an increase in permits issued for employment of foreign workers, lack of available mechanisms to help workers who lost their jobs find new ones, and the absence of effective enforcement against those who employ workers illegally.
For Hadash MK Dov Henin the problem is not the workers, but the government's revolving-door policy.
"If there are too many foreign workers, stop bringing more of them into the country. I'm more than willing to accept that policy," Henin said during the committee discussion.
"Far too often I hear attempts to depict these workers as a type of social ill, a phenomenon that has only negative aspects. I say, let's look at the good they do. The foreign workers are an engine of growth. I have yet to see an Israeli who rushes to work in agriculture, construction or nursing care. Those labor immigrants that are here benefit Israeli society greatly," he said.
Henin recalled the effects of the last wave of deportations early in the the decade, when Israel expelled 40,000 foreign workers, mostly men from West Africa.
"What happened is that we remained with thousands of broken families, causing horrible social damages with no apparent benefits," he said.
Yossi Edelstein, supervisor of the Foreigners Enforcement Department at the Interior Ministry, said his office was working vigorously to regulate the foreign workers market.
"We've created reserves of 30 percent in the industrial sector. This means that there are 30% more job permits than there are workers, so a worker can leave their employer if they choose to and find another."
Edelstein said the same would happen in the agricultural sector.
"It's like musical chairs. If there are 100 workers, for example, we issue permits for 110 jobs. At any given time, the worker can leave his job and switch employers."
Edelstein said there had already been a "closed skies" policy in place for two years in the construction sector and that the ministry would gradually do the same for the other sectors. Closed skies refers to a policy where the government no longer issues work visas for a particular field.
When asked why the authorities arrested people whose visas were not yet expired, Edelstein responded that it was their policy to allow workers three months to find another employer.
"We don't rush to arrest people, because we have no reason to. I won't deport someone just so I can replace him with somebody else. But if someone is walking around for a year without a legal job..."
At that point, Meretz MK Ilan Gilon rose to his feet and interrupted Edelstein.
"Member of Knesset Dov Henin is a very gentle man and he's talking about a 'revolving door,'" Gilon said, speaking loudly. "My friends, this is a revolting stock exchange of slaves, slave traders and pimps whom you all serve. That is the reality. Some of these people have government ties, and you know it."
According to a report compiled by the Hotline for Migrant Workers, of the 221 people who were arrested by the Oz unit in its first two weeks of operations, 141 (64%) were asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who were arrested for violating an Immigration Authority order that forbids them from residing in the center of the country, 35 (16%) were migrant workers and 45 (20%) were people with expired tourist visas or people who had snuck in across the Egyptian border.
"On one hand the government floods the job market with too many workers, thus sabotaging their chances of finding new jobs, and on the other hand they carry out this expulsion," said Sigal Rozen, the Hotline's public policy coordinator. "What this leads to is that the workers are willing to do anything for a job. NIS 13 an hour is fine, anything to hold on to their legal status."
"The Oz unit started operating on July 1, 2009, because of a cabinet decision made in February 2009. That in itself is noteworthy, because this isn't always the case," said Oz commander Tziki Sela.
"The Oz unit deals with illegal residents - people who don't belong here - and that's why I expel them from here directly back to their home countries," said Sela, adding that there are many protections in place to help the migrants. "I can hardly even attempt to deport someone before the five-year visa is up. They are protected as long as they are working."
"In plain terms, I enforce a very clear law of the state," said the Oz commander. "The government made a decision that this specific law needs to be enforced all the more forcefully because it deeply damages the country's economy."
Asked by committee chairman Ya'acov Katz (Nation Union) when all the deportations would be completed, Sela said, "It's something that will take years. Our job is very complex and very difficult."